Career Education Expanding in Nebraska

Sept. 16, 2015, 6:44 a.m. ·

Engineering instructor Travis Ray works with students at Lincoln Public Schools' Career Academy. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News)

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Vocational or career-oriented education is on the rise in schools across Nebraska. The popularity of this alternative curriculum is spreading faster than some school districts can keep up.

It was Friday, and while Travis Ray’s small afternoon engineering class at Lincoln Public School’s Career Academy was antsy for the weekend, it was still full of curious minds. Ray’s interactions with these high school students was more like a conversation than a lecture.

“Some of the students come in with whatever pre-concepts they have of what engineering is and at the very least I’m able to enlighten them in like, this is what engineering actually looks like in the field so they can make an informed decision of, ‘Yes, I really do want to go into this’ or ‘It’s not really for me, I’m going to look into something else,” Ray said.

The Career Academy was built by Lincoln Public Schools in partnership with Southeast Community College. It offers 16 different career-oriented courses to high school juniors and seniors. (Concept art courtesy of TCA)

The “enlightening” is showing these students engineering at work. Things like robotics, bridge truss designs, CAD programming, and 3D printing.

According to Rich Katt, state director for career education with the Nebraska Department of Education, this type of vocational training has become more common across Nebraska.

"We’re seeing a huge increase in the number of students that are taking career ed courses and are what we call 'concentrating,'" Katt said. "Part of that is caused by an intense effort we’re doing around career counseling to help young people really think about their career choices, around their strengths and what they want to do. Really trying to help them understand the career opportunities that are here in Nebraska so we keep them here."

That push to keep students in Nebraska has led school districts to work directly with the Nebraska Department of Economic Development to determine what Nebraska industries are prospering the most and then adjust curriculum accordingly.

“We have to look at what’s coming, what the needs are for some of those industries," said Linda Black, targeted industries manager for the Department of Economic Development. “All jobs are important. You never want to say one’s more important than the other. But there are jobs, there are opportunities that give folks a better discretionary income and raises their standard of living. When we raise the standard of living across the state with the better paying jobs and better benefits it raises the boat for all of Nebraska.”

One of those opportunities has been in manufacturing - Nebraska’s second-largest industry. But in terms of career education, it’s been one of the largest holes.

“One of our largest issues in career education in the state is the availability of qualified teachers," Katt said. "In particular, we have severe shortages in skilled and technical sciences, or what used to be called industrial technology or industrial education. Those areas like automotive, building constructions, welding. I think we had about 15 schools this year that could not find a teacher.”

Jason Suttor is the principal of Beatrice High School, one of the 15 schools that looked to be entering the school year without an industrial arts teacher.

Many school districts are struggling to find industrial arts instructors for vocational training classes. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News)

“You don't get as many applications that come in for those positions as you do for say a social studies or a physical education or even an English type of position," Suttor said. "It's kind of ironic to me that we're really saying we're going to start focusing more of our attention to and we're really going to start preparing kids for career readiness and helping them be ready for anything after high school whether it's college or career. Those positions are hard to find.”

Katt said the Department of Education has implemented a series of new programs to address that. The most popular has been the career education permit. While not a full teaching certificate, it would allow someone with significant industry experience - for example a certified welder - to bring their experience into the classroom. An applicant would then go through a four day ‘crash course’ in teaching.

“We’re looking at alternatives to streamline the process," Katt said. "We want to maintain quality in our career ed programs and we want to make sure students have a great experience that prepares them for post-secondary education or their job. We want to make sure the quality is there but we do want to create some flexibility.”

Because of the career education permit program Beatrice High School eventually found a teacher just before the school year began. Principal Suttor said the program is the main reason his school has been able to offer students the opportunity to take an industrial arts class this year.

“Right there we were like, ‘Wow.’ That was one of our late positions so we were… It just worked out great. This gentleman sought us out. He’s got a wealth of knowledge and he’s going to do a great job," Suttor said.

Suttor hopes the class will offer the students exposure to a career in manufacturing, “…but also look at that as an educational opportunity to become a teacher in those areas because they're definitely is the need for those now.”