Vocational Ed gives students a jump up

OSSINEKE – On the floor of Ossineke Industries are a handful of employees who took technical classes at Alpena Community College and who support giving high-schoolers more vocational training opportunities.

In between straightening out gun drills, Trevor Phillips said he’s taking CAD design classes at the college, and took welding in high school as well.

“I think that when you work in a place and do it every day, more hands-on activities, you actually get to learn it better,” he said.

Plant Manager Bill Keen said he frequently talks with ACC instructors who send him students to work while taking classes.

“It gives them an opportunity to see a manufacturing environment, and it gives us an opportunity to look at these students, see what their skills are and see what they’re learning,” he said.

Being in charge of a plant making carbide drills, Keen is in favor of giving high-schoolers vocational training opportunities. In years past, many of his coworkers came to the plant after learning basic skills at Alpena High School’s machine tools classes. While the high school offers career and technical education in other subjects, machine tools is no longer one of them.

“That’s why we go to the community college,” he said. “They’re obviously starting to learn the skills that I would need here.”

Jobs are available for those with the skills, ACC instructor David Cummins said. He teaches CAD design classes, and came to the college after working in industry himself. Many industries, both local and beyond, are looking for students with experience in a variety of areas.

“I’ve had companies as far away as Green Bay and Iron Mountain calling, trying to find CAD designers,” he said. “Our problem is, right now I don’t have enough students to meet our local industry demands.”

As high schools cut back on vocational classes, either due to lack of funds or interest, Cummins has seen a corresponding drop in students coming into ACC’s engineering and design programs. Some might not be aware there are career opportunities in these fields, while others may feel like college is too late to be exploring their job options.

Cummins thinks high-schoolers should have more exposure to industrial trades, but believes graduation requirements might make that difficult. Students who might do well in these types of classes might not have the chance to take them if they’re struggling with math, science or foreign language requirements.

State Rep. Peter Pettalia, R-Presque Isle, is hoping to give schools more options on how their students can meet certain requirements so they can offer more career training opportunities.

Various educational reforms have pushed graduation requirements to the point where students have little time for vocational classes, Pettalia said. He and six other lawmakers are proposing changes to give districts more flexibility. As an example, schools might let marching band students count the class as their physical education requirement.

Pettalia also pointed out that requiring high-schoolers to take two years of a foreign language might not be the best way to teach a valuable subject. Studies have shown that children learn other languages better at a younger age, so offering them in earlier grades might be a better option.

Vocational education doesn’t just cover industrial trades, Pettalia said. Schools could offer programs for nursing, culinary arts, construction and auto body work, to name a few. These programs can also give students a chance to master their new skills in college or at a university.

“There are many, many teachers behind this,” he said. “They believe that what we’ve been doing right now has been difficult for them as educators and unfair for the students, because they see students that would normally benefit and excel in something not have any opportunity.”

Hannah Pontius, Posen Consolidated Schools industrial arts teacher, is in favor of teaching students more job skills. She recently bought a CNC router for her classroom to give her students skills that will help them find jobs. Employers are looking for people with some experience, and that’s what she’s hoping to provide.

“If you can walk in and say, ‘Hey, I’ve already used this machine in my class,’ they’re going to be more willing to train you,” she said.

While industrial arts is different from vocational classes, Pontius stresses the skills that will help students get a job after school, she said. Each of her students learn about industry specifications, the standards that a finished product must meet before it can leave the factory. They also learn the basics of how to use each tool in her class.

Pontius also believes students in her class get to see how mathematical concepts apply to the real world. Students also learn life skills they’ll need later on, even if they don’t pursue a career in industry.

Real-world math is exactly what students get in certain classes offered by Alpena Public Schools’ Career and Technical Education Programs, Director of Secondary Instruction/CTE Joyce McCoy said. Some classes count as senior-level math, while others use concepts from second-level algebra.

“Our house is a good example,” she said. “Our building trades students built that house, and a lot of math is involved.”

These programs offer hands-on learning in nine different areas, from agriscience to business and management to welding, McCoy said. Each program has an advisory committee that ensures it’s keeping up with industry standards. Some lead to a certificate, while all give graduates who meet a certain level of proficiency to continue their learning in college without having to repeat what they learned in high school.

Shrinking enrollment has taken a toll on the district’s CTE programs, McCoy said. Where Alpena High once graduated 500 to 600 students at a time, the last graduating class was down to 290. The district had to drop its course in machine tools after interest waned.

While other counties fund vocational programs with a millage, APS programs are funded like any other class, McCoy said. The district gets additional funds from the state to pay for extra costs, such as gas for the welding program or transportation for building trades students.

“If we had millage money, that’s money we could use to update our programs, add programming, and enhance our programs,” she said, adding the district Board of Education has supported CTE programs throughout the years.

McCoy supports Pettalia’s push to give schools and students more options, she said.

“With the Michigan Merit Curriculum restrictions, it’s hard for us to ensure that kids can get onto that career path just because of all the other requirements,” she said.

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at www.thealpenanews.com.