Tolles alumni Nathan Bidwell graduated from the firefighting and EMS program, earning credentials that set him on a pathway to a career at Norwich Township Fire Department in Hilliard, Ohio.

It’s time we talk about career-tech

It is a conversation we hear frequently. “We” being those of us who work in career-technical education aka “vocational” education, aka “trade” education.

“I think what you do is so important because not all kids can go to college.”

“I had no idea this is what you guys did. I thought this place was for those students who weren’t going to college.”

These conversations, and others, are heard more often than not by parents, by community members, by teachers, by counselors, by administrators. While vocational education evolved over the past 20 years or so, our society’s impressions and beliefs of it did not. A “stigma” of what “type” of education it was and what “type” of student belonged in it has been a battle that has been fought — albeit unsuccessfully — for years by those who work in the field. It seems we are the only ones who truly get it. Well, that is until people take time to truly see what we do in our high tech labs and what happens to our students afterwards.

The facts are undeniable as to the success and impact of career-technical education:

  • The average graduation rates are higher amongst career-technical students, 93% compared to 80% for non-career-tech students*
  • More than 75% of secondary career-tech students pursued postsecondary education shortly after high school, and four out of five of them had earned a credential or were still enrolled two years later.*
  • According to the Ohio Department of Education, 60–70% of students who are involved with career-technical education go on to college.*

It isn’t that we think college is the goal of education and that’s the impression we want to change. We don’t. In fact, we are proud of the fact that we are designed specifically around addressing skills gaps and workforce needs. We are proud to prepare high school students to be able to go straight into the workforce at a much higher level of skill that earns them a much higher level of pay. This is just as important as college. Why?

  • About 70% of 2013 graduates left college with an average of $28,400 in student loan debt. In Ohio, the average student loan debt was $29,090.*
  • In 2018, Harvard University predicts only 33% of all jobs will require a 4-year degree or more, while the majority of jobs will require skills and training at the credential or associate’s degree level.*
  • The true ratio of jobs in our economy is 1:2:7. For every job that requires a master’s degree or more, two jobs require a bachelor’s degree, and more than half a dozen jobs require a credential or two-year degree. This ratio is across all industries and was the same in 1950, 1990, and will be the same in 2030.*
Sarai Vega was undaunted by the so-called reputation of a career center and used the experiences presented to her in her art design and communications program to eventually land at FIDM in Los Angeles, California, studying fashion design.

There is a broader conversation that needs to happen in our society, which took on the mentality that a four-year college degree is the destination and the sign of accomplishment. Why do traditional K-12s promote their four-year college acceptance numbers so much? Because that is what society values. It’s of no fault to them. They are giving people what they want to hear, and it is indeed something to be praised when someone gets accepted to college. We just think it’s also worth noting those who might also be going on a different route.

This emphasis on the four-year college traditional pathway, being prepped by enrolling in AP classes and in the traditional classroom setting, has led to a very real disconnect. This has caused a generation of students drowning in student loan debt, working in jobs that pay well below what their degrees cost because there weren’t many job prospects in the first place, and very much struggling to find their pathway because they were never given all educational pathway options in high school.

About eight months ago, I set out to have my production company, On Scene Productions in Columbus, Ohio, film some promotional videos of our alumni. There was no grand vision to this except to showcase some of our student success stories. However, in the midst of hearing their stories, this project became much bigger and evolved in a content piece that could lead to a broader conversation.

We, like probably every career center in Ohio and throughout the nation, are constantly fighting an uphill battle to change perceptions, to debunk false myths and misinformation, about career-tech. Yes, our students are being prepared for a job while enrolled here. Why is that a problem? When did we degrade the value of work? When did we start thinking that spending $100,000+ on a college education mindlessly just for the “experience” was our top priority over truly preparing students for all options?

What we are most proud of in career-technical education is that college and work are not an either/or option. They are intertwined. We get that. We truly want to take all levels of students and set them on a pathway that gives them the option to go straight into the workforce better prepared, with industry credentials, and with the skills that can help them earn high wages. This may involve postsecondary education — a two-year or a four-year path. And, it may not. We value both pathways. Shouldn’t we all?

This is what Landed: A Tolles Alumni Documentary became all about, really. Yes, it showcases the success stories of eight alumni of our career center. It does more than that. It serves a bigger purpose. It showcases the various pathways that we all take to land where we want to be. This might be college, it might be work, it might be all of the above. It discusses the myths and the struggles. It gives voice to a greater vision.

For us, that vision started with Harry E. Tolles, our first superintendent and school’s namesake. In his final visit to the school before his death in February 2015, Mr. Tolles did a video interview with students in our digital media production program, one of the newer types of programs associated with career-tech that was never part of what Mr. Tolles’ vocational system could have imagined. In this interview, he summed up our society’s need to adjust its view on education.

“I think there had been a little too much emphasis on academic education in the past and vocational and technical education were looked at one time as a downgrade from regular education. I never agreed with that philosophy and don’t today, and I think the country as a whole is coming around to the position that we need to put more emphasis on skills and training rather than just academic endeavours. This does not exclude college, but we want to put an emphasis as a nation on training people for the skills we need.”

Is career-technical education for everyone? Absolutely not. But, parents and students should be aware of it as a real option for what it can really do, not for what an antiquated view of it suggests and falsely promotes.

While Landed and the stories within it — told so eloquently by graduates of career-technical programs in culinary, pre-vet, pharmacy, art design, firefighting and ems, engineering and manufacturing, data processing, and pre-nursing — hopefully change some hearts and minds, it is ultimately up to all of us to do better for future generations educating them about all pathways.

There is a skills shortage in many industries, there are skills gaps mismatching degrees with the talents needed for jobs, there is a mountain of growing debt that students will never be able to re-pay. It’s time for an honest discussion. We hope Landed is one way to have it.

Landed: A Tolles Documentary debuts online at tolleslandeddoc.com at 8 p.m. EST on December 8, 2015

Shane Haggerty is the director of marketing and technology for Tolles Career & Technical Center in Plain City, OH, a career-technical district that serves seven K-12 districts in Central Ohio. He has worked in public education for more than 15 years, including nearly a decade of those in career-technical education.

*data from the Association of Career-Technical Education, the Ohio ACTE, Institute for College Access & Success, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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