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Vocational Schools Give Some an Edge

Trade education helps students fill a rising need for skilled labor


NEW YORK — Amanda Wilson says that a lot of people tried to talk her out of enrolling in a vocational school two years ago. At her old high school in Hamilton, Ohio, she earned a 4.0 grade-point average.

She was told that a bright student such as herself should stay on the academic course--and continue to excel.

"Everyone said to me, 'Why are you going to do that? You're doing so well here,' " she says. "But I knew that I wanted to work in the medical field, and I wanted to get a head start."

Wilson is now 17 and a senior at the D. Russell Lee Career-Technology Center, where she is earning college credits in the Allied Health program, a program that trains students for health technology careers. She hopes to one day be a respiratory therapist.

Wilson is one of many students who realized early on that vocational and technical education doesn't necessarily translate into learning a lowly skill that puts them on a dead-end course. And schools that offer vocational and technical classes are not a dumping ground for kids who don't succeed in traditional classrooms.

Votech education nowadays involves racking up technical skills alongside academic credits, which can put students ahead of the game in the job market.

"If anyone thinks that we're not doing any work over here, I think that's just nonsense," says Louis Sanchez, 17, and also a senior at D. Russell Lee. "In fact, I think you have to be a little bit smarter to do some of this stuff."

Sanchez was sold on the school after hearing about a friend who went through the program and after finishing his training was making a good living as an auto mechanic. Sanchez, who admits he has a soft spot for Ferraris, hopes to fix them.

The need for skilled labor has grown, especially since more students are opting to go to four-year colleges than ever before. Companies who rely on a well-trained manual labor force are trying to get the word out to students who might be looking for an alternative career that doesn't occur behind a desk.

Mack Trucks launched a campaign that brings company representatives to high schools to explain what sorts of jobs are available in the general trucking industry.

Tom Kelly, vice president of marketing for Mack, says these trips are not to recruit future truck drivers but to show students that the automotive industry is highly technical and not always about turning a wrench.

He uses the example of the new variable geometry turbo charger, a part of an engine that has been developed to take the bad exhaust from trucks and have it consumed again by the engine. These engines hope to make air cleaner by reducing emissions.

Simply designing an engine like this takes knowledge of both mechanics and physics, Kelly says. Using one takes a sharp eye for electronics.

"A highly skilled mechanic can become something like a highly paid baseball player," Kelly says. "These guys get hired from company to company."

"People can knock trade schools all they want but when they're going 75 miles an hour down the highway they better hope that whoever fixed their brakes had a good technical education," says Dave Treasure, the head of the Trade and Industrials Program at Idaho State College in Pocatello, Idaho.

Succeeding in a technical field may be innate for some people; the key is matching skill with individuals' interests. The average starting salary for graduates of Treasure's program was about $21.33 an hour--more than many entry-level jobs for college graduates. Treasure says some of his students earned as much as $45 an hour, and Kelly of Mack Trucks reports that someone with specific knowledge of auto mechanics can start out earning as much as $50,000 a year.

"Everyone talks nowadays about the super-high tech, the IPOs and making money," Kelly says, "but people don't realize that there is a need for 'steady Eddies,' the guys that make the world work on a day-to-day basis."

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