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Vocational training on the rise but can’t keep up with demand

May 4, 2013 by

Career and technical education is surging in Arizona, with schools training high-school students for careers ranging from culinary arts to health occupations.

But the growth is not happening fast enough to fill jobs at some Arizona companies short of technical workers such as machinists, heating and air-conditioning technicians and auto-collision-repair workers.

Educators say one reason for the shortage is that Arizona’s core academic requirements have become tougher in the last few years. Students must now take four years of math and science to earn high-school diplomas and don’t have time for technical classes.

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Another reason, both educators and employers say, is that career and technical education still carries a stigma from decades ago, when kids who were deemed not smart enough for geometry or chemistry were sent off to so-called “vocational ed.”

But times have changed.

Career and technical classes teach more skills than ever and many students who take them go on to college afterward.

“Manufacturing has created most of the wealth in this country, but local companies are having problems finding workers,” said David Senkfor, a Scottsdale manufacturing consultant and a member of the advisory board to the East Valley Institute of Technology. The public school in Mesa enrolls 3,400 career and technical-education students.

“Parents still want their kids to go to college and major in communications — even though there are far more jobs for people with technical skills.”

Education officials share employers’ frustration.

“We can no longer afford to treat career and technical education as a dead end,” said Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, who views career and technical education not only as a path to employment but to college.

The types of career and technical-education careers are wide-ranging, from aviation courses that train aspiring pilots to programs for future massage therapists.

Last year, more than 100,000 students were enrolled in about 280,000 technical-education classes at their own high schools or at specialized schools like EVIT and West-MEC.

The number of classes taken represents a 12 percent increase from the 250,000 classes students took in 2007-2008, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

Culinary and graphic-communications classes were the most popular, with more than 30,000 students taking at least one class in either field last year, according to state numbers.

About 17,000 enrolled in auto mechanics, and health and construction technology had about 13,000 students each.

But enrollment last year in programs that can lead to high-paying, high-demand careers as welders or precision machinists was dramatically lower – about 7,500 and 1,600, respectively. And only 18took HVAC repair classes, although officials say the low number is because programs are new.

Machining and air-conditioning repair classes are exactly the kind that train students for employment after graduating from high school.

Todd Kuhn, director of engineering and tooling for West Pharmaceutical Services, which manufactures insulin and epinephrine pens, said he recently hired three machinists “right out of EVIT.” He is looking for more, particularly because a number of experienced machinists will retire in the next few years.

“They earn between $15 and $30 an hour and are running some of our most sophisticated equipment,” Kuhn said.

After completing collision-repair programs run by Western Maricopa Education Center, or West-MEC, students are hired for on-the-job training at collision-repair shops and insurance companies.

The students get the ideal training for either body repair or claims adjusting at West-MEC, said Toby Kramer, a retired insurance-company claims supervisor, former co-owner of a repair shop and a West-MEC board member.

“There is a huge shortage of qualified workers in these fields,” she said. “There are no college classes for this industry.”

Sissie Roberts Shank, chief executive officer of Chas Roberts Air Conditioning and Plumbing in Phoenix, said her company plans to begin hiring interns from EVIT’s HVAC training program in hopes that they will eventually have careers with her company. Right now, she is scrambling to find qualified technicians to hire, she said.

She said starting pay is about $12 an hour and an experienced technician can earn as much as $70,000 a year.

EVIT and West-MEC are the largest of 13Joint Technological Education Districts, which were created as a cost effective way to provide career and technical education in Arizona. The so-called JTEDS operate like school districts and are funded with property taxes and voter-approved bonds.

“There is still a misconception that EVIT is for kids who aren’t going anywhere in life,” said Carter Hill, an 18-year-old senior and A student at Mountain Pointe High School in Ahwatukee Foothills.

Hill travels to EVIT’s main campus — which serves students in 80 East Valley school districts and charter schools — every weekday morning for four hours of precision machining classes.

“Most people here have a really clear idea of what they are doing,” Hill said. “We are here because we realize (what) the advantages of what we learn will give us later on.”

Hill has been accepted to Arizona State University on a New American University scholarship. He intends to study materials science and engineering, a path to a number of careers such as biomedical, aerospace and computer engineering.

Hill said precision machining – a high-tech version of what used to be known as machine shop class – has already given him the skills to intern at a Valley company called Tech Mold this summer. Later it will be a foundation for what he needs to know in his engineering career.

Although EVIT officials say 65 percent of the school’s graduates go on to college, Eugene Ward, who had led the school’s precision machining for four years, said some of his best students simply graduate and enter machinist positions that pay $15 an hour or more. There, they receive on-the-job training that often leads to promotions.

Several Arizona companies are willing to hire students right out of his program, Ward said. Still, he has many open spaces in his classes. This semester he has 13 students, but space for 50.

Dante Fierros, president of the Arizona Tooling and Machining Association, said that although skilled machinists can make $70,000 a year or more, students are not drawn to the field because it is “not seen as being as sexy as software development.”

“Kids don’t see manufacturing as a viable career,” he said. “But here is my mantra: Whatever someone designs, someone has got to make.”

Employment firms Manpower Inc. and Career Builder have published recent surveys that show that manufacturing companies are struggling to fill openings for machinists, welders and skilled construction workers nationally.

And those firms that don’t have openings now likely will in the future. Like West Pharmaceutical, most companies have seasoned employees who intend to retire soon.

Valley residents appear to support the idea that career and technical education is needed for high-school students. Last November, West Valley voters approved a $75 million bond for the expansion of West-MEC.

The bond money will finance career and technical education on new campuses in Phoenix, Surprise and Buckeye in the next two decades.

West-MEC already offers aviation, diesel and automotive technology, dental assisting, fire sciences and cosmetology classes.

“I am getting great experience here,” said West-MEC junior Tori Elisan, 16, an automotive-technology student who dreams of owning a national chain of auto-repair shops.

Elisan, who attends Millennium High School, said she will have a certificate in automotive technology when she graduates but will not go to work at a shop immediately. She first plans to attend a private technical college called Universal Technical Institute to hone her skills.

Career and technical educators at EVIT, West-MEC and districts including Mesa Public Schools and Dysart Unifed say they believe even more Arizona students could, like Elisan, graduate with credentials to get immediate jobs or impress the colleges they apply to.

In addition to outdated notions about the value of technical careers, obstacles include new, more rigorous high-school academic requirements – including four years of math and science – and students’ failure to enroll in career and technical-education classes early enough to earn all the class credits they need in four years.

“The feedback I get from my teachers is that students are having more difficulty fitting everything into their schedules,” said Marlo Loria, Mesa Public Schools’ career and technical-education director.

Huppenthal said he is particularly unhappy about a $27 million state funding cut that eliminated ninth-grade education in schools like EVIT and West-MEC, at the start of the 2011-12 year and that continues this year. The state’s technical schools received about $96 million in state and federal funding last year.

Vocational training on the rise but can’t keep up with demand.

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