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Local career and technical education program graduates are employing the technical skills they obtained at three times the rate of students from other vocational programs statewide.
While barely one in six Indiana high school graduates stick with vocational training in college, more than half of students in Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.’s program do, according to local officials and state economic development expert Brian Bosworth.
This local training is preparing south-central Indiana students to eventually fill jobs such as loan officer, electronic technician, welder, certified nursing assistant, automotive technician, cosmetologist, dental assistant and dental hygienist.
During his State of the State speech Jan. 22, Gov. Mike Pence talked about whittling away at the state’s 8.2 percent unemployment rate. He said that could be accomplished partly by making career, technical and vocational education a priority among all high schools in the state.
Local school officials believe the C4 program in Columbus could serve as the statewide model Pence wants.
The C4 Columbus Area Career Connection, based primarily out of Columbus North High School, provides career and technical education to high school students from Bartholomew, Brown, Decatur, Jackson and Johnson counties as one of 51 such districts established in the state.
“I feel like we have most of Pence’s bases covered,” said Gene Hack, director of C4.
The state-funded program trains high school students — some of whom do not go on to college — in various disciplines. Programs include agriculture, business, communications, computer technology, construction and engineering, each of which breaks down further into career specialties.
Hack said part of what makes C4 successful is that it works well with businesses, developing a rapport that keeps C4 programming evolving to give employers the workers they need.
Brands Lumber, for example, has used many C4 students over the years as interns and employees, company president Jesse Brand said.
He said workers come to his company at 1425 California St. prepared and well-trained, testifying to the high quality of the C4 program to train skilled laborers.
Tom Harmon, CEO of Taylor Brothers Construction Co., 4555 Middle Road, said the C4 program does a good job preparing graduates for degrees in the building trades. He, too, has hired C4 graduates.
Statewide, it’s a different story.
Bosworth, president of FutureWorks, a consulting company that has been studying Indiana’s skills gap, shared his findings about Indiana’s shortcomings during the Indiana Education and Workforce Innovation Summit on Jan. 25 in Indianapolis.
He said that no more than 15 percent of high school students who take vocational courses in pre-engineering go on to pursue post-secondary training in the same field.
But local school officials, whose statistics show that 68 percent of their high school students enrolled in C4 last year, found during a one-year followup of the Class of 2011 that:
Sophomores Juan Sandoval, a C4 computer technology student, and Andrew Ng, a C4 introduction to engineering student, said they like that the local program gives them hands-on experience that they can build on in college.
Ng said he especially likes that his class “shows you a slice of what real engineers do” and challenges them to follow that lead.
Jacob Phillips, a senior in the C4 engineering design and development program, said he and his classmates have split into teams to design and produce something unique. He said he and his teammate are designing a guitar that uses LED lights to help people learn to play.
Phillips intends to continue his training in college. “I feel like this is great preparation,” he said.
Local educators said C4, though it is outperforming the state as a whole, still has room for improvement. That’s why they plan to re-examine their methods in support of Pence’s push for statewide improvement.
Pence plans to dedicate $6 million over two years to create Indiana Works Councils statewide to evaluate curriculum needs on a more localized scale than what’s done today, Hack said.
Under the current system, regions establish their own curriculum needs based on the needs of their communities. C4 does that by way of regional advisory boards, cluster advisory groups and community sponsors.
Hack said the problem is that the state bases its funding amounts for those curricula on the needs of the state as a whole, meaning C4 can’t pump as much of its money into certain programming than what it might otherwise prefer.
For example, C4 considers electronics to be a high-demand/high-wage career pathway. But the state sees and funds electronics differently, because other Indiana career and technical programs do not report the same wage scale and need.
Hack said that if Pence creates Indiana Works Councils, it probably would give more power to the regions to establish the monetary value of their own unique needs and programs.
“If the mentioned councils help with flexibility and local control, then it would seem like it would be a positive situation for the students and the economic outlook,” Hack said.
Marilyn Metzler, a former C4 director who works with the state, said one weakness of C4 is that program officials need to shake the perception that the program develops skills for jobs that don’t pay much. On the contrary, she said C4 programs mostly lead to well-paying jobs in high-demand fields.
A C4 student who graduates with an emphasis in computer technology pathway can earn $31,200 a year as a starting wage straight out of high school, she said. She said C4 graduates in pre-engineering and welding can earn pretty much the same, before they even consider going to college.
The followup study of the Class of 2011 found that C4 graduates who reported wages earned an average of $10.74 an hour right out of high school, while non-C4 graduates in similar fields earned an average of $8.05 an hour right out of high school. Although that’s less than $23,000 a year for the C4 graduate, it still exceeds the $7.25 minimum wage. Students who continue their studies in college improve their earnings potential.
“These are well-paying jobs,” Metzler said.
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