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Employers are seeking young, skilled workers, so why aren’t more high school students attending CTC?

04/02/2018 Lancaster Online By Alex Geli

Jaylea Barnes wants to pursue a career in nursing after graduating from Manheim Township High School this year. She’s already working as a patient care assistant at Homestead Village, a retirement community near the school’s campus.

But instead of attending traditional classes with most of the other seniors in Neffsville, she’s enrolled full-time at the Lancaster County Career & Technology Center.

“The skills that I’m learning here I use at my job,” she said. “It’s really helpful.”

Barnes is among a growing number of high school students preparing to enter a local workforce desperate for skilled workers — computer systems analysts, carpenters, construction workers, electricians, plumbers, truck drivers and, yes, nurses.

But while demand for career and tech education surges, community and school leaders say there’s still not enough CTC students here to meet the demands of the job market. And they say educators, counselors and parents should focus on crafting a college or career plan that align with the needs of the local workforce.

“This is a community effort,” said Cathy Rychalsky, executive director of the Lancaster County Workforce Development Board. “We want parents to help their students identify where their skill set is and help them align to the opportunities.

‘A strong foundation’

Entry-level workers who land a job in one of the high-priority occupations mentioned above can make as much as $76,000 a year, according to Lancaster County workforce data. Experienced workers could earn six figures.

What’s more, local employers “are extremely interested in students graduating from our CTC,” Rychalsky said.

“LCCTC, along with other targeted trade schools, are providing the level and types of education and training that are in demand for the businesses that we operate and other businesses in the county,” Darryl Gordon, spokesman for High Companies, said in an email.

Stephen Trapnell, spokesman for Armstrong Flooring, added that although most positions at Armstrong require additional experience or a journeymanship, “the Lancaster CTC provides a strong foundation for graduates to begin that process.”

Still, jobs in carpentry, plumbing, construction and trucking are often seen as too low-paying for the difficult labor each career demands. And most high-school students here opt to go to four-year colleges after high school.

‘Missing out’

The percentage of local high school students studying at one of the three career and technology centers here is smaller than in any of the surrounding counties, according to Pennsylvania Department of Education data from 2016-17, the most recent available.

Only 6.6 percent of 21,142 public high school students were enrolled in a career and technology program here. In Berks County, the percentage was nearly double, at 12.8 percent. In Lebanon County, one in 10 students is planning for a career in a skilled trade.

The superintendent of record for the career and technology centers here, Mike Leichliter, acknowledged that many parents insist their children attend college instead of pursuing a trade. Many students, especially those who are underserved, or of low-income households, are missing out on a good-paying job in a trade, he said.

But given the enrollment growth in this county’s career and technology centers, that appears to be changing. The three campuses — in Willow Street, Mount Joy and Brownstown — now serve nearly 1,300 high school students, making it one of the largest in southcentral Pennsylvania.

‘Room to grow’

Enrollment has grown by about 10 percent over the past five years, a faster pace than in surrounding counties, school officials say. Only the Chester County Technical College High School, which serves 2,202 students at three campuses, and the Lebanon County CTC, which serves 618 students, have boosted high school enrollment at a faster pace. Chester has grown nearly 20 percent from 1,771, while Lebanon has increased by 12 percent from 550.

“I think people are starting to see the benefits of career and technical education,” Leichliter said, “but I think we have more room to grow.”

One option: extending Lancaster’s program to students in grades nine and 10, rather than just seniors and students in their second half of 11th grade. The Lancaster and Lebanon career and technology centers are the only vocational training facilities in the area that don’t accept applicants who haven’t reached the second half of their junior year.

York, Chester and Dauphin offer programs to all high school students. Berks and Reading Muhlenberg offer programs starting in 10th grade.

Expanding the program to more Lancaster County school students would require a “massive overhaul” — additional staffing and physical space — Leichliter said. It is a challenge the next executive director of the career and technology centers here will likely face.

The previous executive director, David Warren, was demoted for personnel reasons not publicly disclosed and now serves as the assistant principal of the Brownstown campus, LNP reported in August. The Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 is managing the search for a new executive director to start in the 2018-19 school year.

The next director will also likely consider better marketing of the centers and revamping programs so they align to the job market, Leichliter said. For example, the centers are already eliminating cosmetology, one of its most popular programs, at the end of this year to make room for programs geared toward higher-paying jobs.

Spreading the word

About a third of the 936 high school graduates enrolled at a career and training center here reported they went on to post-secondary education in 2017; another third reported that they went into the workforce.

The placement rate for 2017 high school graduates was 72 percent, factoring in students who sign up for the military. That information is self-reported, said Mike Moeller, the supervisor of curriculum and special projects for the centers.

Martin Hudacs, a retired Solanco School District superintendent who is consulting Leichliter at the career and technology centers, said students are walking out the door with skill sets that are in high demand.

“It’s a secret everybody’s trying to shout about,” he said.

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