High School Isn’t Always About Preparing for College
Thawne Spencer, of Warren, is a student at Riverbend Career and Technical Center, where he is working on a project in salon management.
(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
Rivendell Academy school counselor Nancy Hall discusses career options with Tony Lupacchino. A senior, Lupacchino is interested in pursuing work that involves automotive technology.
(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
Instructor Stephen Sanborn works with, center, Tucker Snook, of Newbury, Vt., and Zach Lang, of Bradford, Vt. Both are students in the Fire and Emergency Management Program at Riverbend Career and Technical Center.
(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
Morgan Johnson, of Bradford, Vt., and Ashley Cyr, of West Topsham, cut up ham and onions at the omelet bar at the Riverbend Career and Technical Center in Bradford, Vt. Both students are seniors at the school.
(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
The standard advice for all high school students used to be: work hard, get accepted to a good four-year college or university, and earn your bachelor’s degree. Four-year college graduates find better jobs and make more money than those who are less well educated.
But that’s not always the case anymore.
Though students pursuing careers in law, medicine, business administration and scientific research still need a four-year undergraduate degree, for others, a conventional college education may not be as critical to success as it once was, according to Pathways to Prosperity, a report released last year by the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
The report found that many of the hottest growth industries in the 21st century are in the “middle-skill” occupations, such as electrician, construction manager, dental hygienist, paralegal, police officer and health care technologist, all jobs that require some post-secondary education, but not a four-year degree. And while these jobs may not be considered as prestigious as those aspired to by four-year college graduates, they are often more recession-proof, and surprisingly, they sometimes pay more than the kinds of jobs filled by B.A. recipients.
The Upper Valley is home to a variety of vocational learning centers, community-business partnerships and corporate-sponsored training programs that are helping students who opt out of pursuing a bachelor’s degree prepare for today’s labor market.
Regional vocational training centers like River Bend Career and Technical Center in Bradford, the Hartford Area Career & Technology Center in White River Junction and the Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center in Claremont and Newport train students in such fields as allied medical services, industrial mechanics, heavy equipment management, early childhood education, emergency services, cosmetology, web design, and more.
“There are plenty of careers out there that don’t require a four-year degree, that pay a livable wage and offer a good retirement,” said Dean Stearns, director of River Bend Career and Technical Center. “I think there are going to be more and more of those (jobs) that come up.” River Bend provides programs to juniors and seniors from seven area high schools, as well as to freshmen and sophomores from Oxbow High School next door. “For the most part, the kids here, they’re pretty career-focused,” said Stearns. “They know what they want to do, what they want to be, and how they want to get there.” Stearns pointed out that even students who aren’t on the college-prep track need post-secondary training these days. For example, you can’t expect to get a job in a car repair shop anymore without being certified as an automotive technician, no matter how much you know about cars.
“The reading level required for an automotive technician in a GM shop is at a higher level than that required of the chairman of GM,” Stearns said.
River Bend student Kyle Crown, a senior at Blue Mountain Union School, plans to become an electrical technician. Several members of Crown’s family, including his father, already work in that field and have shown him that it’s a viable career option. “I looked at how my dad went and thought it would be a good way for me to go,” Crown said. “He’s had a pretty successful life.” His parents support his choice, Crown said. “They think it’s a good trade to get into. It’s something you can fall back on. I think there’s always going to be a job for me out there.” Ashley Cyr, another River Bend student and a senior at Thetford Academy, is studying culinary arts. “I’ve always liked baking,” she said. “I’ve been (at River Bend) for two years and it’s helped me realize that not only do I like baking, but I’m really into pastry.” As a result of this awareness, Cyr is considering Paul Smith’s College, Johnson and Wales, and White Mountain Community College, all culinary arts schools that offer dedicated pastry programs. “I’ve always liked just focusing on one thing and learning everything about it,” she said.
In addition to on-site training, many vocational programs offer internships, apprenticeships and other cooperative arrangements with area employers. Hands-on job experience is invaluable, Stearns said.
While still in high school, students can garner a resume item, a reference, college credit, or even a full-time job offer. More important, they can get a feel for what it’s really like to work in their chosen occupation, something four-year college students may not find out until it’s too late.
“They learn exponentially more in the workplace than what they learn here,” Stearns said.
Such cooperation benefits employers as well as students, said Kathi Terami, executive director of the Upper Valley Business and Education Partnership, a Hanover nonprofit that links businesses and schools.
Along with representatives of community colleges and businesses, UVBEP recently participated in a forum at Rivendell Academy called “Your Future, Your Way,” designed to help high school students choose among career and education options.
Ideally, career exploration should begin even before high school, Terami said. “We start with middle school students and even elementary school students. … The high schools around here are really good with college-prep work, so we try to supplement that (with career education).” For instance, UVBEP’s Job Shadow Day program allows middle-school students to visit businesses around the Upper Valley and observe an actual workday. Meanwhile, employers get the chance to show the students the skills they’ll need in the future and to demonstrate how their studies relate to the real world.
“We’re really helping the kids with career exploration, getting kids out of the school, bringing [business] people into the school,” Terami said.
“It’s neat to see local schools and communities working together on this.” One company taking a particularly active role in cultivating its future workforce is Hypertherm in Hanover. Hypertherm has created its own paid training program to teach employees the technical skills they’ll need as machinists, as well as softer skills such as teamwork and communication.
The company had positions that were going unfilled because area high school graduates don’t have the math skills to do those jobs. “It’s not that high schools aren’t offering these courses. they are,” said Barbara Couch, the company’s vice president of corporate social responsibility.
“But I think some students elect out of these courses because they don’t see the relevancy in their high school years.” “It’s a national issue, not just tied to the Upper Valley,” Couch said.
“There are jobs being exported overseas that we can’t find the talent for here. ... If students were made aware earlier in their school journey of the types of jobs that are available and what’s necessary to qualify for these jobs, we wouldn’t be in the position we are today.” Couch’s assertion is backed up by the Harvard report: one reason only 56 percent of students enrolled in four-year colleges attain a bachelor’s degree after six years is that “too many (students) can’t see a clear, transparent connection between their program of study and tangible opportunities in the labor market,” the report says.
Businesses also have the responsibility to show students how manufacturing has changed, Couch said. “Our manufacturing floors are clean, they’re not sweat boxes. You can touch and feel the science, the precision. The machinery on the floor is state of the art. It’s not as it used to be, and we need to make that clear.” Even students who do make it all the way through a four-year school and graduate on time may not be able to find the kinds of jobs they’ve studied for.
“We encourage students to really achieve as many ‘transferable skills’ as they can,” Terami said. “We hear this phrase a lot. So many jobs are changing so fast. For a high school freshman, by the time they graduate from whatever college they pursue, that job they were interested in in 9th grade could look totally different.” Expense is another barrier. “Higher education has gotten to the point where it’s kind of unmanageable,” said Rivendell Academy guidance counselor Nancy Hall. “Last year we had eight students who got into four-year schools but they couldn’t afford to go.” “In the past,” she said, “people always had state schools as a backup.
They were kind of affordable. That’s not the case anymore.” Hall agreed with Stearns that students who opt for vocational training or two-year colleges frequently are more career-focused than those who go the conventional college route. “Four-year people tend to be the folks who haven’t quite figured out what they want to do,” she said.
For such students, college may still be a good opportunity for experimentation and self-discovery, Hall said. For others, a bachelor’s degree may not be the only, or even the best, avenue to a satisfying career. “A four-year liberal arts college degree is not for everybody,” she said.