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With plenty of jobs available, technical education classes are booming

CATEC Auto Body Shop
Christine Kueter
Students work in the auto body shop at CATEC.

Like a lot of kids his age, 17-year-old Zack Johnson loves cars. “I’ve always grown up with Corvettes,” says Zack. “My papa has had three, and I just grew up loving those.”

It’s one of the reasons the high school junior enrolled in Ron Moore’s auto body course with his twin brother Brice at Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center where they learn how to repair, refurbish, and repaint cars. In another year, when the Johnsons graduate from CATEC, they’ll be I-CAR certified—that’s the industry standard for auto techs—and ready to work: no post-secondary experience or education necessary.

That’s a change, says Moore, given a tight job market in which auto techs easily earn $40,000 a year to start but have potential to command six figure salaries through commission work. “The job market is wide open," Moore notes. "I’ve got shops every day, calling me, wanting people, needing people desperately. A few years back, there were enough people in the job market, with 5, 6, 7 years experience, they weren’t needing the entry-level technicians.”

Before COVID, interest in technical education was already on the rise. The number of Virginia high school graduates who completed at least two technical education courses rose by nearly 14 percent between 2017 and 2020. Enrollment at CATEC is up 40 percent over the last two years.

Students say learning a trade can enhance their college education, provide a backup plan, help them avoid student loan debt, and, as 17-year-old electricity student Pleasant Green puts it, “start making bank.”

“I’ve been told, you’ve got to go to college to get a high-paying job, but then you come here and it’s like 'you can start working right off the bat,'" Green says. “Last year took away that full school experience of high school, so I feel like during the pandemic it helped open a lot of people’s eyes about what’s out there, and what’s different.”

What’s out there, says David Eshelman, who directs the Virginia Department of Education’s career, technical, and adult education arm, is more than your dad’s shop class. The state’s 133 school systems and 20 technical education high schools offer hundreds of courses across 17 career clusters matched to labor market demand—everything from energy to carpentry, veterinary care to turf management. “There’s been an understanding from people that maybe there’s another path, and maybe it doesn’t outright require a four-year degree, but there are skills that are needed.”

Tenth grader Zion Gant-Washington already has a job once he completes his electrical certification. “My friend’s dad does electrical work, and he was like, ‘Zion, if you ever get into the electrical field, you will have a job with us.’”

Even if they plan to get a bachelor’s degree, some students, like senior Austin Richardson, think technical training is a plus. He hopes to work in aerospace after four years in college. “I’d like to work on rockets, like a hands-on job. I don’t really want to sit behind a desk all day. That’s why I enjoy it out in the shop, because I get to be up, taking stuff apart, and putting it back together.”

Soren Poole
Christine Kueter
Soren Poole works in the electrical class.

Senior Soren Poole is earning an electrical certification and been accepted at UVA. “A lot of this is for having more experience for home and having a backup if college doesn’t go well. You could get paid the same amount, not going to college and not having a bunch of debt.”

CATEC principal Stephanie Carter hopes the lure of well-paying work translates into more respect for individuals she calls “the fuel and the engine of this economy and this country.”

“There’s been a real recognition that a job in the skilled trades is not only noble but extremely valuable and that there’s a real need in our economy for it,” Carter says

Kids recognize that, too. A recent report found the percentage of American teens planning to earn a four-year degree is down by nearly one-quarter since the pandemic’s start and job opportunities for people without a bachelor’s degree are abundant.

The Johnson twins—who’ll work this summer at Taylor’s Auto Body Shop in Charlottesville—are already making plans for their earnings. “A Nissan Skyline R-32, in midnight purple, super dark, it looks black until it’s in the sun,” says Brice. “Late 90s C-5,” adds Zack. “That’ll be awesome.”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.