By JOHN KLINE
THE GOSHEN NEWS
Vocational training opportunities in and around the Elkhart County area may soon get a significant boost, at least if newly elected Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has anything to say about it.
Pence, in his first State of the State speech this past Tuesday, referenced what he feels is a growing “skills gap” in Indiana related to a lack of skilled workers in the vocational trades. Pence’s feelings also seem to gel with what is coming out of Indiana’s workforce development office, which in December reported that the state currently has more than 7,000 manufacturing jobs that are sitting unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants.
In an effort to remedy the situation, Pence has pledged to make vocational education a priority in every high school in Indiana. One way he plans to do that, he says, is by dedicating approximately $18 million in state funding to vocational education over the next two years.
While Pence admits that there are many high schools in Indiana — some of them right here in Elkhart County — that currently offer vocational and technical training, his hope is that this added funding will help to strengthen those existing programs and tie them more directly to the demand for higher skilled workers.
And that, says Goshen Community Schools educator Brian Bechtel, is just fine by him.
Bechtel is coordinator of Goshen High School’s Interdisciplinary Cooperative Education (I.C.E.) program, a method of instruction for seniors that combines in-class instruction with on-the-job training experiences through employment, all with the goal of helping students prepare for and explore their occupational career objectives before graduation. Through the program, students divide their time between classes and a paid position at a participating local business where they are required to work an average of 15 hours per week over the course of a full school year.
Bechtel also heads up the school’s Professional Career Internship program, where juniors and seniors at the high school are given the opportunity to explore the career of their choice through a hands-on job shadowing experience while practicing specific occupational skills learned in their related Cooperative Education courses. The internship program takes place over a semester and requires students to complete five hours of on-the-job training — paid or unpaid — each week for a total of 70 hours per semester.
In addition to its I.C.E. and Internship programs, the school also sends between 55 and 65 students on average through the Elkhart Area Career Center each year. Through that partnership, GHS students gain access to more than 20 additional vocational training courses, including commercial photography, advertising design, automation and engineering technology, cosmetology, culinary arts and Automotive Technology to name just a few.
“The center does a real good job of preparing kids for those trade programs, where they can graduate with a specific trade skill and be directly employable,” Bechtel said. “Our programs at the high school really focus more on getting the kids the work ethic and personal qualities they need to be successful in the workplace, rather than actually preparing them for a specific trade.”
That said, Bechtel noted that the high school does offer a number of vocational-based classes such as building trades and computer-aided design (CAD) that provide students with a number of highly sought-after trade skills.
“We have an excellent CAD design program, and we have web design. Those are the two big ones that come to mind,” Bechtel said. “Then of course we have a great building trades program, and our family consumer science programs are definitely more vocational.”
When asked about Pence’s plan to focus more state funding into school vocational programs, Bechtel said he is all for it, particularly when it comes to all the students he sees each year who need a career path but, are not planning on going to college.
“We have a group of students in every school that are probably not four-year college students,” Bechtel said. “I think we have good programs here, but for so many years the state has pushed for students to get a four-year college degree, and the reality is that that’s just not for everyone. But if we could get more students into these programs, get them more job experience while in high school and get them the skills they need to help them transition into some of these vocational positions, I’d definitely support that.”
Career and Technical Education co-op
Kim Nguyen, director of Wawasee High School’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) program, was equally as enthused by Pence’s drive to bolster vocational programs within the state.
One of the larger vocational programs in the area, the CTE program is actually a co-op made up of Wawasee High School, Fairfield High School and West Noble High School students based out of the Wawasee High School campus in Syracuse.
“At Wawasee we have what’s called Project Lead the Way engineering classes,” Nguyen said. “We also have auto mechanics, building trades, welding, aviation, cosmetology, and a number of medical-related classes.”
Nguyen said he’s also looking forward to a new program set to start next year involving marine mechanics and service.
“That’s going to be a cool one because our area has so many lakes and waterways,” Nguyen said. “We also have a lot of ag classes, business classes, a print shop, and our Culinary Arts program is pretty big. Then another class that we’re still in the organization process with is radio and television broadcasting.”
In addition to the on-campus classes, CTE students are also given the option to attend either the Warsaw Career Center or Warsaw Ivy Tech campus where they gain access to additional classes such as criminal justice, early childhood education, EMT and fire rescue training.
“We kind of measure success today through kids graduating high school and going to college and getting a degree,” Nguyen said. “But then there’s this big population of students who don’t go to college. So we’re trying to beef up these programs so these kids can be trained and become successful in high school so when they graduate they will be ready for the workforce. With the skills these kids are learning, with the certifications they can earn, they can go straight into the workforce and be successful, which is our goal.”
Scratching the surface
As to Pence’s pledge to poor more funding into the state’s vocational programs, Nguyen said any additional money making its way to his program would be more than welcome, as creating — and maintaining — a state-of-the art vocational program is not easy, or cheap.
“A lot of these programs do require a lot of equipment and supplies and technology beyond just textbooks and laptops and those kinds of things,” Nguyen said. “So when we create one, we have to write a lot of grants in addition to the state grants that we get to actually create and fund the programs. So yes, any extra funding is helpful, because we can’t even keep up with everything we’d like to do right now. There’s a whole world out there when it comes to these programs, and we’ve just barely scratched the surface.”