Trade Offs: Career-Tech Center weathers challenges for skilled trades education

Skilled trades education is essential in northern Michigan.

That’s particularly evident as skyrocketing residential real estate demand in the area leads to a huge market for new-home construction – without the construction trades professionals to fill the jobs.

The Northwest Education Services (North Ed) Career-Tech Center has been working to address the shortage for years, by encouraging high school-aged kids to embrace the possibility of careers in the trades. But according to Pat Lamb, who serves as assistant superintendent of career and technical education and community outreach for Northwest Education Services, the pandemic has posed numerous major challenges for skilled trades education – challenges that could have long-term potential consequences.

Like other schools in the region and throughout Michigan, the Career-Tech Center (CTC) went virtual in mid-March of last year and did not return to in-person learning for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. While the CTC has resumed face-to-face education this school year – albeit, with several state or locally mandated pauses – things still haven’t been fully back to normal.

Lamb notes that, to reduce the risk of mixing students from North Ed’s multiple school districts and counties – and potentially accelerating the spread of COVID-19 across the entire region – the school has adopted a “blended” hybrid model. Grand Traverse County students go to the CTC on Mondays and Tuesdays, while students from other counties attend on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Wednesday is a virtual learning day for all CTC students, and a cleaning day at the CTC building staff.

“We were trying to cohort (the groups of kids) as best we can could, and to keep the numbers within our programs as low as possible,” Lamb explained. “That move allowed us to cut our density within the classroom in half, which allowed for adequate spacing.”

While a hybrid model was CTC’s best option to minimize exposure risk for students and teachers, it came at a cost: CTC students have gotten less hands-on learning time this school year than they typically would have. Lamb admits the blow has been significant, especially coming on the tails of last year’s mostly virtual spring semester.

“It was challenging, knowing what we do in our building and how hands-on most of our programs are,” Lamb said. “Some of our programs were able to transition pretty seamlessly, when you think about web design, or you think about IT, or graphic arts. But how do you do that with construction? How you do that with electrical occupations? How do you do that with auto?”

Lamb says instructors made do last year by using how-to videos and tutorials to educate students from afar. Still, he acknowledges that the change in curriculum “really pulled our students away from why I think many of them choose to come here, which is that hands-on experience.”

“You can watch videos on how to weld,” Lamb said. “You can watch videos on how to throw a football and catch, too. But unless you actually throw a football and catch a football, you’re not going to grow that skill. Same with welding: It’s practice upon practice upon practice, to get your hand dexterity where it needs to be in order to put together a really good weld. So (this past year) wasn’t ideal for those types of programs.”

No program has been impacted more than allied health, where students have traditionally been able to get hands-on experience working at Munson Medical Center or with other health clinics throughout the region. Those learning experiences have been virtually impossible to offer during COVID-19, when Munson has barely even allowed visitors.

But there have been silver linings along the way. Lamb points to one project where students in CTC’s culinary arts, construction trades, and power equipment programs worked together to build culinary huts that several local restaurants used to offer outdoor dining during the winter months. Responding to a real-life issue – and being a part of the effort to help businesses survive and thrive through COVID – proved to be a valuable learning experience for the students.

The other good news? CTC’s enrollment numbers have remained strong. While COVID-19 got in the way of some student visits last spring – a key part of how CTC shows off its programs to prospective students in younger grades – Lamb says enrollment numbers were “close to 1,200” at the start of the school year, which is comparable to other recent years.

Some programs are also at all-time highs, in terms of enrollment. Lamb notes that construction trades is in a “really solid” place at the moment, with roughly 50 kids working their way through the program. Even bigger than that is the electrical occupations program, which started the year with more than 30 students on a waitlist. To provide more opportunities, Lamb recruited an existing CTC math teacher – who just happened to be a professional electrician – to teach a new session of the program. By utilizing unused space in the CTC’s Manufacturing Tech Academy building – a new addition to the campus, as of 2018 – the school was able to expand its electrical occupations program from its usual count, of around 50 students, to approximately 80.

Despite the positives, Lamb worries that there could be storm clouds on the horizon. For one thing, the CTC – in order to protect current students from potential risk – has not been able to host any in-person visits this year. The school has pivoted by giving prospective students the chance to preview multiple programs virtually, but Lamb notes that “it’s not the same as kids getting on a bus and walking through our hallways.”

Lamb is also concerned about a nationwide trend where more middle school and high school students are failing classes, due to the educational changes and disruptions caused by COVID-19. If that trend is bearing out in northern Michigan, it could mean that fewer students have the leeway in their schedules for elective classes, which would in turn preclude enrollment with the CTC.

Because of these factors and others, Lamb is apprehensive about what enrollment numbers might look like for next school year. Those numbers should start firming up this month. In the meantime, though, the CTC team is just hoping for the best.

“I do believe (the kids) really want to be here,” Lamb said. “You could see that at the beginning of the year: the excitement with coming back after the way last year ended. And with the economy, specifically in construction and given the demand there, I do feel that parents are investigating and looking at opportunities within skilled trades and within the technical fields that we offer.

Lamb says ultimately, he believes the program will be okay.

“But we’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.