Amid a shortage of skilled workers in the job market, trade schools in Central Pennsylvania say enrollment is up

In a recent class at the Clearfield County Career and Technology Center, which attendees and employees often refer to as CTC, students in goggles work in pairs to measure wood panels and carefully cut them with table saws.

Instructor Greg Barger supervises the students’ work and steps in when they need guidance. A student has a question about the dimensions of wood panels.

“So maintenance needs these 8-foot and 4-foot two-by-fours. So we have to deliver them. Now you cut them and then come right back,” Barger told the student.

Instructor Greg Berger teaches his students the skills needed to complete professional woodworking projects. More recently, the class built an outdoor shed, featuring two doors, a window, roof shingles and white paint.

A day in Barger’s two-and-a-half-hour carpentry course at CTC is unlike an average high school class. His instruction room is filled with workstations with drills and piles of wood. His students will earn a carpentry certification from the school, as well as a high school diploma. Most will go on to apprentice with an entrepreneur.

Late last year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported that 62% of contractors said they had “great difficulty finding skilled workers.” Barger said recruiters were eager to hire his students when they graduate.

“They tell me every time they come in, ‘Let us know if you have any good kids who are ready to work.’ You know, if you can pass a drug test and you’re ready to work, they’re ready to give you a job right away,” Barger said.

CTC classroom
In addition to hands-on carpentry, Barger’s class includes a “theoretical” lesson. In this class, her students practice their math skills to figure out how much drywall, nails, and mud they will need for their projects.

The Clearfield County Career and Technology Center offers programs for high school students and adults. High school students transfer from a local school to complete their final two years at the Center. One such transfer is Jaron Dotts, a high school student studying HVAC.

He said he preferred hands-on experience to regular work in high school.

“When you are in regular school, you have your regular common core lessons, there is nothing practical. It’s all on the computer. Here we have the chance to learn a specific trade, and everything is hands-on,” Dotts said.

Archere Meek examined the cost-effectiveness of its carpentry program compared to a traditional four-year college.

“There is also the subject of debt. And going to a school like this gives you the skills you need to potentially work right out of school instead of being stuck in debt,” Meek said.

The schools from which the high school students leave pay fees to the CTC. The students themselves do not have to pay anything to attend the centre. For adult learners, most programs cost around $7,000 for a nine-month course.

Sarah Cashdollar works for the Illinois Workforce and Education Research Collaborative.

She says that since she started studying the transition from high school to post-secondary education, interest in vocational and technical education has grown and attitudes have changed.

“Pennsylvania has some of the highest college debt levels in the country, and our public four-year colleges are among the most expensive for low-income students. And so, you can understand why students would be reluctant to take on debt,” Cashdollar said.

She said school leaders had stopped pushing just “university for all” and started talking to students about alternatives.

“There are a variety of paths, and the best one for you depends on your personal interests, your short and long term goals, your career goals, and your willingness to take on a certain amount of debt to get more out of it. later,” says Cashdollar.

A report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that enrollment nationwide at two-year institutions in construction trades rose 19.3% this spring. During the same period, four-year college enrollment fell 4.7%.

Trade schools in central Pennsylvania show a similar pattern. At the Clearfield County Career and Technology Center, enrollment of high school students increased 14% over last year. The nearby Jefferson County-Dubois Area Vocational and Technical School has seen a 52% increase in enrollment over the past four years.

Tiffany Cover has served as director of the CLC since December 2019. She said skilled training opportunities not available at most high schools attract students.

CTC building
Clearfield County Career and Technology Center director Tiffany Cover said the center was “about full capacity.” Almost all programs are sold out and those that are not at full capacity have only a few places left. She said the Center has even increased its seating for most programs to meet student demand.

“I’ve seen the increase since I’ve been here. The kids who came here are really counting on me to want to be here. They felt the need, they worked well on the pitch, they worked with their strengths,” Cover said.

She said she has seen a noticeable shift in how students, parents and education officials view career and technical education opportunities.

“Over the past two years, we have seen this change. And I think once upon a time, maybe career centers were seen as a place where kids who didn’t make it through a send-off school went. And there is much more than that. And I think now the word is spreading,” Cover said.

Cover said while some students go on to graduate school after completing their CTC courses, most enter the workforce immediately.

She said some students even get jobs before they finish their programs.

“Specifically last year, we had a precision machine adult student. He didn’t even complete his full year here because he was picked up by a local company and is still working there. So, I mean, they’re recruiting a lot,” Cover said.

She is thrilled that more students have enrolled at the Clearfield County Career and Technology Center. But she said the national and local uptick in commerce program enrollment is likely not yet enough to meet industry demand.

Michael A. Bynum