A Spike in Skilled Trades: TBAISD’s Career-Tech Center Charts Big Growth

The Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD) Career-Tech Center is seeing record enrollment numbers across many of its programs and growing demand from local industry employers – trends that Principal Pat Lamb attributes to “a positive swing in the direction of skilled trades,” as well as increasing post-secondary costs.

“It’s looking like the numbers are coming in strong [for the 2019-2020 school year],” Lamb said. “We don’t have finalized enrollments yet, but TC West’s numbers right now are around 250 kids. The highest I’ve ever seen from them is about 225.”

Lamb sees numerous reasons for the increase in enrollment. For one thing, the Career-Tech Center (CTC) itself has grown. This year marks the first school year that TBAISD has hosted two of its long-time programs – the Manufacturing Tech Academy (MTA) and the Precision Machining program – at its home building on Parsons Road. Previously, those two programs have been housed at the Parsons-Stulen Building on Aero Park Drive. Parsons-Stulen is owned by Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), and when NMC had a need for the space TBAISD was using, CTC had to come up with an alternate plan.

The shake-up led CTC to build a new 10,000-square-foot addition to its Parsons Road campus. Construction finished last August and the CTC has been using the new space for the whole school year. CTC also renovated a few old classrooms to make way for a brand-new Mechatronics program, which is a course that explores the mechanical and electrical concepts found in the automated manufacturing field. The CTC also added extra space to its welding department.

The results are twofold: First, the renovation and construction work has enabled the CTC to continue its growth – both in terms of available programs and number of students. Second, the new 10,000-square-foot renovation means that, for the first time ever, all of CTC’s programs are under one roof.

“Everything we offer now is on site here … with the exception of our Teacher Academy, and that’s only because those kids are placed in classrooms within their local school districts,” he said.

The physical growth seems to have happened just in time, because demand for the type of skilled trades education CTC offers is increasing. Lamb says that programs like welding and agrisciences are booming, and that both Electrical Occupations and Allied Health are likely to have waitlists for the 2019-2020 school year.

“Back during the downswing of the economy, we had seven kids in the Electrical Occupations program for a session,” Lamb said. “Now, we’re 25 in the morning session and 25 in the afternoon session, and next year, we’ll have a waitlist. For the first time, I may be in a situation where we have a justification to try to run a third or fourth class in a program.”

In particular, Lamb says that the Electrical Occupations program is a hot destination for kids interested in becoming electrical linemen. Those students start at the CTC program, graduate with a background in electrical work, and then attend one of several certification programs around the state to earn either 10-month certifications or two-year associate’s degrees. Once they’re certified, Lamb says former CTC students that take this path have no problem finding high-paying jobs.

“These students are making over $100,000 as 20-year-olds,” Lamb said. “Now, if you don’t mind climbing poles, and you don’t mind high voltage, and you don’t mind climbing those poles when the winds are blowing 50 miles per hour during a power outage — I mean, there are some variables there. Not everyone is going to do that kind of work. But we’ve got some kids that decided to do that, and they are doing extremely well.”

Electrical lines work is just one area where industry employers are having trouble finding qualified people. Between a low unemployment rate, the highly specialized nature of the work, and the fact that employers are looking for candidates with clean driving records, clean criminal records, and the ability to pass a drug test, qualified and certified linemen are in short supply and high demand.

They aren’t the only ones, either. Lamb says that the “short supply, high demand” issue is common across all the skilled trades. It’s an issue that led the CTC to implement a brand-new program this school year, called Mechatronics.

CTC implemented a brand-new program this school year, called Mechatronics.

Mechatronics, or mechatronic engineering, is a multidisciplinary field that blends electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, robotics, electronics, computer science, telecommunications, product engineering, and more. The program is essentially a crash course in multiple types of engineering.

“What I say is that, for students who are interested in engineering, this program is perfect for them,” said Chris Haines, the instructor for the program. “It touches upon all different things within the engineering field. It’s ultimately about helping students find what they like and what they don’t like about this kind of work. If they come through this program and they find that they don’t like the electrical side, they know not to go to college and spend a bunch of money on getting a degree in electrical engineering.”

Lamb also adds that Mechatronics isn’t necessarily just for kids who want to pursue careers in electrical or mechanical engineering. On the contrary, one of the big needs that drove CTC to adopt the program in the first place was a demand for technicians capable of servicing and repairing sophisticated robotic equipment – especially as automation continues to grow.

“You think about the biomedical equipment at Munson, the machines that are involved in surgeries; there aren’t a lot of technicians to fix those,” Lamb said. “Or, if you go over to TranTek and the robotic arms break down, who’s going to fix that?”

Although becoming an engineer might be the end game for some students, Lamb says there is a “real need” for skilled technicians, both regionally and state-wide. “There is always a lot of talk about people going through a program like this and becoming engineers. But what about a high-level technician who is skilled enough to work on those pieces of equipment?” he said. “We feel there is a real need for that kind of person, not only regionally but also statewide. So that’s a premise behind the Mechatronics program: Who is going to work on some of this high-level equipment?”

Fittingly, one of the core projects for the Mechatronics program this year is to turn a Fisher-Price Power Wheels Jeep into an autonomous vehicle. From installing sensors on the kid-sized vehicle to 3D-printing new wheel holders, all the way to coding the car to respond to certain impulses, Haines says his students have effectively learned to “teach the car to move by itself.”

The next step for the students is Square One Education Network’s annual Innovative Vehicle Design Challenge at Kettering University on May 11. Haines says the competition will give students and their autonomous car multiple challenges to complete, including obstacle detection, reading lines on the road and overall self-navigation.

The Agriscience program recently purchased a FarmBot Genesis XL, a state-of-the-art robot.

Mechatronics isn’t the only CTC program working with automated systems. The Agriscience program recently purchased a FarmBot Genesis XL, a state-of-the-art robot capable of automating most aspects of crop management for a small planter bed. Among other equipment, the system features a seed injector tool, a watering nozzle, a soil sensor, and a weeding tool. The robot can swap tools on the fly and can move from one end or corner of the garden to the other to tend the entire planter bed. The system runs on open-source software, which is programmable via a web-based, videogame-like interface. Agriscience students at the CTC are learning how to program, manage and monitor the FarmBot system on site in the campus greenhouse.

The Farmbot technology, paired with a brand-new 400-gallon aquaponics tank – a growing environment for both fish and plants – has helped advance the Agrisciences program to a near-college level.

Lamb even notes that students of the program can graduate with six college credits to Michigan State University. “That used to be unheard of for a Career-Tech Center,” he said.