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More Southwestern Pennsylvania students head for career, tech centers

Experts say the economic vitality of Southwestern Pennsylvania may rest with a small collection of schools and programs that far too many students never consider.

Pennsylvania's 80 career and technical centers, or CTCs, and 120 school districts that offer high school students a taste of the work world and a peek at viable alternatives to a four-year college degree have become ever more critical as baby boomers sign retirement papers, said David N. Taylor, president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturer's Association.

“Every year, many thousands of good-paying, family-sustaining manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania go wanting because we can't find well-trained or trainable people to fill them,” Taylor said.

He's calling for a revolution in the way we look at secondary and post-secondary education.

It may already be under way.

Statewide, CTC enrollment, which declined by 17 percent between 2007-08 and 2011-12, has been inching up. Although it has yet to reach 2007-08 levels, it is about 5 percent higher than its low point in 2011-12.

Shift in parents' attitudes

Kurt Kiefer, director of the Northern Westmoreland Career and Technical Center in New Kensington, said he sees a shift in how families view the facilities once dismissed derisively by many parents and students. The high cost of a college degree, coupled with the availability of good jobs for skilled workers, may be driving the shift.

The range of studies available at most CTCs includes welding, auto mechanics, cosmetology, graphic design, culinary arts, carpentry, masonry, plumbing, electrical training, health care and machining.

“At our open house in the past, we used to just see kids who knew they were going to come or were already here. These last two years, we've had a lot of seventh- and eighth-grade students coming with their parents,” Kiefer said.

“I think the students always have wanted to come. I think it is parents who are making changes. Parents used to say, ‘No, you're going to college.' Now parents are saying career and technical education might be something to look into,” he said.

Enrollment at the school is about 450, compared to 262 two years ago. Part of that results from policy changes in the Burrell and Kiski Area school districts that now permit students to explore the CTC option beginning in ninth grade. Although that flies in the face of emerging practices, Kiefer said it seems to work.

“A lot of studies show the earlier a student gets involved, the better chance he or she has of completing. It's been a boom for us,” he said.

In addition to Burrell and Kiski, the school serves high school students from Franklin Regional and New Ken-Arnold.

The school's auto mechanics and welding programs are full, and cosmetology and health occupations are reaching capacity.

Welding students are constantly referring to the shortage of welders on bridge projects and the needs created by the Royal Dutch Shell cracker plant in Beaver County and new pipelines, Kiefer said.

Ready for the workforce

All students earn at least two certificates upon graduation — one a national occupational competency certificate and the other in their special area of study. But that's not necessarily the end of the line for all CTC students.

Todd Weimer, director of the Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technical Center, said schools have been beefing up their career prep efforts. Although enrollment is down commensurate with declines in participating school districts, the school that serves Derry Area, Greater Latrobe and Ligonier Valley has seen achievement increase.

“Last year, we issued 275 certifications compared to 237 in 2016. The single largest factor in this increase is our recognition of the importance of having students finish high school with evidence that they are prepared to enter the workforce and/or pursue post-secondary education,” Weimer said.

Kiefer said the schools are producing results.

“About 60 percent go right into the workforce, 25 to 30 percent move on to two- or four-year college programs, and some go to military. About 96 percent of students went to one of those entities,” Kiefer said.

Even so, business and industry leaders worry that too few see the opportunities that are available. Taylor fears the disconnect between schools, communities and the workplace is too wide.

“Many people never see the technology that gets deployed and value that gets added that American business does every day. We need our business leaders to reach out to our schools, so the educational leaders are brought out to facilities every year,” Taylor said.

He pointed to the Kennametal Young Engineers program, which takes Latrobe high school students into the plant and gives them a taste of engineering, manufacturing and marketing, as the kind of partnership that must be encouraged.

Taylor's not alone in touting higher enrollment and greater goals for career training.

State Department of Education spokeswoman Casey Smith said Gov. Tom Wolf has been adamant that Pennsylvania expand its investment in career technology programs and help students complete the kind of programs they will need to succeed.

“Over the course of the next four years, the governor has tasked the Department of Education with a number of goals, including increasing the percentage of career technology education students proficient and advanced in mathematics PSSAs by 9 percent, increasing the percentage of completed vocational education programs by 87 percent, and increasing annual enrollment in career technology education programs by 5 percent,” Smith said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996, derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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