Like many high school students, Hannah Williams had doubts about college being the right fit for her.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do in college or what I’d get my degree in,” said Williams, a 2013 graduate of Genoa-Kingston High School. She got mostly As and Bs in high school so she felt pressure from friends, family, and even teachers to attend college.
“That’s what a lot of kids do, but I thought, ‘Why would I want to spend all that money if I didn’t know what I wanted to do?’ ” she said.
Williams enrolled in Debutantes School of Cosmetology and Nail Technology in DeKalb, first as a high school senior through Kishwaukee Education Consortium and now as a private student, joining the millions of Americans who pursue well-paying careers in the skilled labor workforce instead of attending a four-year college.
“(Vocational training is) extremely important, in the sense that education has failed in facing the facts that they have had this dream that every single student who walks in their door is going to go to college and get a four-year degree,” said Tom Crouch, executive director of KEC in Malta.
There are 460 high school students from DeKalb, Sycamore, Genoa-Kingston, Hiawatha, and Rochelle who spend two class periods each day learning trade skills in 17 fields at KEC. The trades taught at KEC include culinary arts and hospitality, graphic design, multimedia production, auto mechanics, aviation, health occupations, fire science, building trades, manufacturing, and welding.
KEC students receive high school and college credits concurrently, giving them a head start over their peers if they decide to pursue an associate’s degree.
Kishwaukee College offers training for adults in 21 career programs. Many of the programs are similar to the KEC programs, but the college also offers programs like truck driving, horticulture, radiology, marketing and management, and therapeutic massage.
Kishwaukee College also offers courses of study in nine non-credit certificate and training programs, including veterinary assistant, pharmacy technician, dental assistant, and forklift operator.
In addition to preparing high-school students for careers as soon as they graduate, vocational education gives some students focus and motivation they might lack otherwise.
“We know that students who are disengaged and don’t have something that they are excited about in school are more likely to drop out,” Crouch said.
Derrick Burress, principal of KEC, said that students can be as enthusiastic about their vocational training as other students are about athletics. Another benefit is that the tuition-free classes expose the students to a wide variety of career options.
“This gives kids the opportunity to explore (career options) while they are still in high school, before they get into the real world,” Burress said.
The Association for Career and Technical Education reports that 81 percent of high school dropouts say relevant, real-world learning opportunities would have kept them in high school. The association says the national average high school graduation rate for students concentrating in CTE programs is 90.2 percent, compared with a 74.9 percent overall rate.
The association also reports that skilled trades jobs are the hardest to fill in the United States. There are an estimated 645,000 jobs open in the trade, transportation and utilities sector, and 253,000 jobs open in manufacturing.
Mike Rowe, host of the television show “Dirty Jobs,” has promoted education in the skilled trades for years, most recently during TV interviews with Bill Maher, Glenn Beck and Piers Morgan.
“A trillion dollars in student loans. Record high unemployment. Three million good jobs that no one seems to want,” Rowe wrote on his website, Profoundly Disconnected. “The Skills Gap is here, and if we don’t close it, it’ll swallow us all.”
While advocates for CTE tout the value of vocational training, they do not underestimate the value of traditional education or a college degree for those who are inclined and able to get one.
“From (kindergarten through 10th grade), students are getting a core curriculum mindset, and what we’re doing is taking that common academic knowledge base and developing that into a real-life application,” Crouch said.