You still need a plumber during a pandemic.
That’s why many say jobs stemming from classes in Career and Technical Education, such as engineering and child care, likely will be in high demand in coming years.
“They’re the kids that are going to come out and be building the bridges, building the roads — doing the stuff that has to be done for the rest of society to live comfortably,” said Darryl Fox, who teaches welding at North Buncombe High School.
In 2019-20, Buncombe County Schools had its first increase in student headcount in CTE classes in five years. That year, the district had 14,431 CTE classroom slots filled, whereas 2018-19 had 14,052, according to the NC Department of Public Instruction.
Before then, numbers were steadily declining.
During the 2015-16 school year, CTE classes were taught to 17,017 sixth through ninth graders. In 2016-17, the number shrank to 16,110. The next year, there were 14,552 before reaching the low of 14,052 in 2018-19,
Students could be counted twice in these figures if they took more than one CTE class, BCS spokesperson Stacia Harris said.
Numbers dropped due the pandemic, when teaching the hands-on classes became increasingly difficult in a virtual setting. As of September 2020, only 12,825 students were in CTE classes, according to a BCS CTE newsletter.
While this is a decrease, BCS Director of CTE Taylor Baldwin said it wasn’t as bad as some other districts.
“CTE programs across the nation have faced, and surmounted, many challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, Buncombe County Schools CTE enrollment, overall, has continued to see a positive upward trend,” Baldwin said. “Despite a challenging year due to the pandemic, BCS CTE student enrollment only saw a slight impact.”
Further, many CTE advocates think students could opt for the atypical programming even more after the pandemic.
“Students are starting to see the value of Career and Technical Education and their parents are as well,” A-B Tech Director of Educational Partnerships Fairley Patton said.
The emerging needs of the workforce post-pandemic, she said, will only amplify the importance of these jobs.
“The pandemic has certainly brought out the need for a skilled workforce. Anyone who has been homebound for a while knows the value of a plumber or the value of someone who is knowledgeable in heating and air conditioning or … has the skills to be a nurse or a nurse aid,” Patton said. “The pandemic has brought out the opportunity, even in a stronger way.”
A-B Tech teams up with Buncombe County and Asheville City Schools to offer dual enrollment for students to take college-level classes in high school for free.
Fox, the only welding teacher in the district, said many of his students go on to get certificates or degrees from A-B Tech.
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Baldwin said increased participation in CTE classes like biomedical technology, automotive services and agriculture benefits not only students who choose uncommon education and career paths, but also the community as a whole, especially as it recovers from the financial and employment turmoil wrought by the pandemic.
“CTE will play an important role in economic recovery and development of the post-pandemic workforce,” Baldwin said. “This includes not only providing the education, training, and reskilling opportunities that youth and adults will need for high-wage, high-skill, and in-demand occupations and industries, but also helping learners develop the technical, employability, and academic skills that are important for increasingly technology-focused workplaces.”
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For teachers like Fox, it’s less about training students for jobs to heal the world post-pandemic, and more about teaching them that hard work, even if it’s unconventional, can lead to fulfilling careers and lives.
“That you might have steered a young student into a career path that they enjoy and make a decent living at — that’s why I’m there,” he said.
Fox said he keeps up with his former students, one of whom graduated his program and is currently at A-B Tech studying welding so she can be a sculptor.
Others, who have taken jobs at local contracting companies or traveling welding companies, frequently send him Snapchat videos while working with captions saying “Don’t you wish you could weld like this?”
The educator welcomes the playful trash-talk because beyond the words are his former students working in the craft — finding their place — thanks to his teaching.
Shelby Harris is a reporter covering education and other topics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @_shelbyharris.