Two decades of emphasis on the four-year college degree track have left a workforce gap in trades such as construction, manufacturing, machining and automotive technology.
At the same time, employers are importing workers from other states, and even other countries, in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, because of a shortage of qualified local applicants. Most of these careers require a degree other than in liberal arts.
School districts throughout the Inland Northwest are responding with new programs and opportunities to better prepare students for the realities of today’s job market.
One emphasis is on skills that don’t require a college degree but which can put graduates in good-paying careers. They include jobs that young people used to be drawn to through high school vocational education programs before standardized testing overtook public school curricula and reduced or eliminated those technical offerings.
Educators also are beefing up STEM programs to put students on a path to pursue college degrees to become professionals such as biologists, physicists, architects, math and science teachers, forensic experts and aerospace engineers.
School districts “are being innovative in how they are approaching education, which I think we need, honestly,” said Shelly O’Quinn, director of education and workforce for Greater Spokane Incorporated, the regional chamber of commerce and economic development council. “I think our traditional school works for most kids, but it’s time to look at how we can educate kids differently.”
The programs for high school students create “more opportunities for students whether they are a straight-A student or in danger of dropping out,” said Jim Tippett, general manager of Rathdrum-based drilling equipment maker Bay Shore Systems, which donated money to support the creation of a technical education center in Kootenai County. Because of what’s being added to school curricula regionwide, 1,000-plus students will have the chance to refine their learning experiences.
One of the more ambitious new efforts will open this fall on the Rathdrum Prairie. The Kootenai Technical Education Center, a 54,000-square-foot school, is a collaboration of the Post Falls, Coeur d’Alene and Lakeland school districts.
Local businesses and industry needs in Kootenai County determined what programs would be taught at KTEC, said Mark Cotner, director of the center.
The school will offer certifications in eight program areas: welding, automotive technology, diesel technology, health professions such as certified nursing assistant and pharmacy tech, construction trades, computer repair, engineering automation, and design and resort management.
“Industry leaders are so supportive they are basically guaranteeing these kids will have a job when they graduate from high school,” Cotner said.
Mead Riverpoint Academy, opening this fall on the WSU Spokane campus, will offer biomedical, engineering and entrepreneurship courses.
Spokane Valley Tech in the Central Valley School District is scheduled to open in January. During the first year, available courses will include cosmetology, fire science, aerospace and advanced manufacturing, such as robotics. Biomedical and engineering programs will be added next summer.
Administrators plan further expansion as they find new sources of funding, school officials say.
At Spokane Public Schools, the region’s largest district, North Central High School’s Institute of Science and Technology and the NEWTECH Skills Center already are in operation, and the district is adding new programs to fit the changing needs of students.
Workforce development experts say the need for new approaches can’t be overstated.
O’Quinn, of Greater Spokane Incorporated, said the Spokane area has more than 1,000 health care businesses – the largest industry in the region with more than 35,000 employees. That’s 12.5 percent of the local workforce, versus 9 percent for manufacturing.
“All those jobs require a STEM background,” she said.
Cotner, KTEC’s director, said, “We in education have a responsibility to teach these kids how to do something to feed themselves.”
North Idaho businesses donated more than $3 million to the school in a show of support for KTEC’s concept and direction.
“It really identified what we think are some jobs and some skills that the manufacturing businesses in the area consider would make students employable right out of high school,” said Tim Komberec, president of Empire Airlines. “But it’s not just about what employers need, but also where the good jobs will be.”
He added, “If it helps these kids get a job and stay in the area, I’m all for it.”
The school is open to students in the Lakeland, Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene school districts, but not as a way to explore career opportunities. It’s only for students who show a strong interest in one of the eight program areas.
More than 950 would-be juniors and seniors applied to attend the school when registration opened in January. Enrollment is capped at 500.
“Parents are more aware now,” Cotner said. “No one wants their kids to come out of high school and not get a job.”
Lakeland High School student Devon Clark, for one, is glad he made the cut.
“I didn’t really know what I’d be doing in high school to prepare myself for engineering, so by taking these classes at KTEC it gives me some skills and some preparation,” the 16-year-old said.
Students attending the new school will spend part of their day at their home high school and then a 2½-hour block at the technical school. At the end of two years, they will be certified in one of the program areas.
A junior next fall, Clark will have a certificate in engineering automation and design, which is often what people need as a basis for computer-aided drafting. He plans to use the certificate to find a job while he continues his education.
Mead Riverpoint Academy
Dan Butler, Mead School District’s assistant superintendent, credits Greater Spokane Incorporated for the push to open the new school.
“The reason GSI has an interest is the workforce, but it also really resonated with our community,” Butler said.
Students – just juniors, initially – will have the opportunity to explore the sciences, engineering fields and entrepreneurship at a deeper level than what’s offered at the high schools.
Students also will be mentored by a community member and spend a couple of weeks shadowing them on the job, Butler said.
The district is partnering with college satellites at the Riverpoint campus – WSU, Eastern Washington University and Community Colleges of Spokane – to offer the students additional opportunities.
After the first year, the school will be expanded to include seniors. During the third and fourth years it will open up to students in other school districts.
“I think we are going to build something that is world class,” Butler said. “Our partners with the colleges and communities have been really supportive.”
Spokane Valley Tech
The new school, a branch campus of Spokane Public Schools’ NEWTECH Skills Center, will start small.
But there’s an aggressive plan for adding programs as soon as possible, said Jean Marczynski, Central Valley School District’s executive director for learning and teaching for secondary education.
“As we grow more capital, we will add programs such as medical technology, energy and electricity, sports medicine, occupational therapy and entrepreneurship,” Marczynski said.
None of the programs will duplicate efforts at the district’s high schools or the Skills Center.
“Our mission is broad. We will have programs where kids can get a job out of high school, but there’s also an emphasis on programs in which students can carry forward to a college degree,” Marczynski said.
“It’s an opportunity for our students to get experiences they really can’t get anywhere else.”
North Central’s Institute of Science and Technology
The IST program at North Central High School started last year.
“It’s a rigorous and authentic immersion into the molecular biosciences,” said Steve Fisk, assistant principal. “Molecular bioscience is where biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and technology are intimately entwined and dependent on each other.”
Students have worked to identify ancient bison DNA by extracting bone fragments, examined the contents of a bee’s stomach and researched deer genomes.
“Deep immersions like this increase their knowledge to a level that’s just amazing,” Fisk said. “All of our IST students who graduated last year went on to major in STEM fields.
“I think we’re on to something.”
Enrollment in 2010-11 was 72 students. This year, with the official start of the IST, enrollment was 138, Fisk said
NEWTECH Skills Center
The school already offers certificates in the dental assisting field, multimedia graphics and printing, culinary, automotive, welding and veterinary assisting.
About 700 students are enrolled, some from each district in Spokane County, private schools and home-school students.
But the school is expanding and so are its offerings.
Dennis Conger, the school’s director, said construction will begin next year on a 32,000-square-foot addition.
“We are adding medical programs, expanding the hospitality program and culinary,” Conger said. “We have a new program in mobile electronics – GPS, Bluetooth, back cameras, driver alert systems and remote access and start systems.”
He added, “We are always looking at ways to fill the demands of the workforce. There are lots of paths to success in this world, and one route doesn’t fit everybody. There’s a lot of emphasis on STEM, but research shows education is more than all-academic press for college.”
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