As more high school students eschew enrolling in college, West Michigan technical centers and higher education institutions are searching for ways to push them to different career pathways.
In part, West Michigan educational leaders say higher education and skilled trades should be more integrated, which would create more opportunities for students. According to Dr. Edward Montgomery, president of Western Michigan University, “you have to rethink the curriculum that we are teaching in high school.”
“Are kids being exposed to shop classes? Are they being exposed to technical education as part of their curriculum? Right now, we have too much set up as one or the other,” he told MiBiz. “Countries that are good at this have it more integrated — as a part of everybody’s education.”
According to Montgomery, Michigan “needs skilled workers” to compete globally for jobs, yet fewer students are enrolling in career technical education programs. For its part, WMU is working with local school districts to promote and improve reading programs and bolster career technical education programs, he said.
“This should be a wake-up call for the state,” Montgomery said. “We are in an economy in which the jobs that are being created, the jobs that are well paying, are increasingly jobs that require education and skills beyond the high school level. That’s everything from certificates to associate degrees to college degrees. If we as a region want to compete, and specifically compete for those good-paying occupations and opportunities, we need to make sure our children (and) our workforce have the skills that are necessary.”
To change course, policymakers must take a “holistic approach” to Michigan’s educational pipeline, according to Montgomery.
“It’s not just a matter of fixing and resourcing higher education, it’s not just a matter of fixing and resourcing community college, it’s not just a matter of fixing high schools and grade schools,” he said. “We have to work on the whole system so kids have the opportunity to have a quality education. … If you just fix the community colleges or just career technical education and don’t fix higher education or K-12, you won’t solve the problem.”
One institution trying to fill that gap is the Muskegon Area Career Tech Center, which is creating a talent pipeline that raises career awareness for every student, said Kyle Fiebig, principal of the MACTC.
According to Fiebig, the center is using a countywide program called Muskegon Made, in which students use work-based learning to help them find a career. In addition to this program, MACTC is providing students with opportunities to enter job fairs and complete job shadowing and internships with local businesses. Some of those businesses include Whitehall-based Erdman Machine Co. and Muskegon-based Excell Machine & Tool Co. LLC.
“We are trying to build a system of career awareness and development for each and every student in our county,” Fiebig told MiBiz. “We are continuing to grow at MACTC. We are doing this by having conversations and working with our district … (around) how we can help students connect to their careers. When we start to identify if a student has an inclination in machining or engineering or something in manufacturing or automotive, then we let them connect with what’s here so they can see what they can become.”
The tech center enrolled 798 students in 2017-18 school year, up from 766 a year ago. In addition to higher enrollment, 80 students already have been placed in a paid internship program this year, Fiebig said. The MACTC offers 15 different programs — ranging from health care to welding to criminal justice — that have a college credit component.
“We’re (creating) over $2 million in economic development just by internships with our students,” Fiebig said. “One of our goals is to get students exposed to as many careers as possible to figure out what it is that they are passionate about. We’re able to connect them with businesses to further their experiences.”
According to Kevin Stotts, executive director of the Grand Rapids-based Talent 2025 Inc., “students have a difficult time connecting what they learn in the classroom to real-world applications and applications to a job or career.”
Because of this, Stotts said his consortium of business leaders “has put more of an emphasis … on career pathways, so students in middle school to high school really understand the value of the in-demand jobs and career pathways.”
Part of Talent 2025’s mission has been to identify the gaps for students “and the skills employers are looking for among high school graduates,” Stotts added.
Already, the organization has encouraged partnerships between schools and manufacturers to host job shadowing and events like Manufacturing Month, which is generating “more of those experiences for students,” according to Stotts.
“If you talk to Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon intermediate schools districts, they will tell you their career technical educations are at full capacity,” he said. “That was not the case a couple of years ago when there was little demand (from manufacturers) and programs were shutting down. Now, district leaders are trying to create more capacity in the system, or create greater activities within individual high schools that connect within (career technical education)”
For example, the Kent Career Technical Center has been at capacity for the last three years with enrollment of around 2,300 students, said Ron Koehler, assistant superintendent of Kent ISD.
“We’re essentially at full enrollment now and a large part of our Marshall Plan application is looking at blended online and face-to-face and hands-on learning to open the pipeline for students who can’t fit this experience into their schedule (or get in because) we are at capacity,” Koehler said, referring to the state’s new talent training program. “The idea of college or nothing — (that) without a four-year college degree you would not be a success — that dynamic has changed in a lot of ways in recent years.”
Koehler added that “we need to treat kids as adults” because “so many students get to college and wash out, because they didn’t know what they want.”
“We also have an oversized emphasis on standardized test … (and) teachers then focus on test prep with the exclusion of other things,” Koehler said. “We need greater exposure in K-12 education.”
Most students who complete the tech center courses will receive college credit, which is “just as helpful for students that complete standardized tests.”