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The Evolving Vocational-Tech School: Preparing Students For Work In Growing Fields06:45Download

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Sophomore Caleb Simmler and senior Michelle Yitts make plastic tic-tac-toe pieces on a three-axis milling machine. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Sophomore Caleb Simmler and senior Michelle Yitts make plastic tic-tac-toe pieces on a three-axis milling machine. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

This story is part of a BostonomiX series called “The Future Of Work” that examines the jobs of the future and the skills needed for those jobs.

Troy Lafond is a polite, serious and determined high school senior from Bellingham. He got top grades in AP chemistry and language. He plans to go into aerospace engineering. And then?

"I want to work on rockets and drones that would go into space, and hopefully eventually get humans back into space and onto planets and moons," Lafond says.

Meet the new breed of vocational school students. Lafond is on the engineering track at Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Upton.

Vocational schools are no longer viewed as repositories for students who can't hack the academics of traditional high school or kids who have little aspiration, as was long the stigma. Voc-tech schools have rigorous academics, as well as hands-on training.

The schools are increasingly seen as a 21st century employers' treasure chest — places that are preparing the future workforce for jobs in fields that are seeing big growth — including health care, computer science and food service.

The kitchen at Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Upton, where students in the culinary arts program are making quesadillas (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)
The kitchen at Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Upton, where students in the culinary arts program are making quesadillas (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

In the huge commercial kitchen for the culinary arts program at Blackstone Valley Tech — or BVT, as it's known — a student stands in front of a big pile of chicken breasts she's chopping. Others are cooking up a slew of quesadillas.

Across the way is the machine tech shop. That's where senior Michelle Yitts from Grafton is sitting at a computer.

Yitts has come to love manufacturing, though it wasn't her first choice of shops. She's made metal chess pieces and created her own roses made of copper and brass. She's also learning skills in multimedia — an industry of the future. She plans to combine the two fields.

"I definitely want to do something with media that kind of advocates for manufacturing, because when I came in here I knew nothing about it," Yitts says. "I thought it was a dirty, disgusting place where you push buttons and you didn't do anything. But I want to kind of help show people the reality of what manufacturing is."

Yitts and Lafond plan to go to four-year colleges. Last year 70 percent of Blackstone Valley Tech's students went on to four-year schools, according to administrators.

But there are so many kids who want to follow in their footsteps by attending voc-tech schools, Massachusetts can't keep up with the demand. As of 2015, there were about 3,200 students on wait lists for vocational-technical schools in the state.

Meanwhile, 75 percent of Massachusetts employers say they can't find qualified people to fill their jobs, in everything from manufacturing to retail to finance. That's according to a recent survey that found many business leaders would like to see voc-tech education expanded.

"In my opinion, years ago, the vocational-technical training may have viewed the student as the robot. Today, the student will program, design and repair the robot. They won't be the robot."

Superintendent Michael Fitzpatrick

The state spends about $5,000 more per student in vocational high schools than it does for students in traditional schools. That's because of smaller class sizes and the expense of equipment.

In an effort to help voc-tech schools expand capacity and purchase new equipment, the state gave $36 million in grants to vocational schools and programs and community colleges over the last two years. It will give an additional $45 million over the next three years.

The longtime superintendent of the Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Regional School District is Michael Fitzpatrick. He says vocational-technical schools have come a long way from the days they had to use donated surplus machines.

"The equipment you would have found here 25 years ago was dated 1953 or before," Fitzpatrick says. "And therefore it trained skills that were no longer needed or competitive for the job market at the time. It certainly didn't allow employers or manufacturers or machinists to create and compete [in] opportunities in their environments."

Items made by Blackstone Valley Tech students using 3D printers. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)
Items made by Blackstone Valley Tech students using 3D printers. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

Now in the machine tech shop, there's sophisticated computerized design equipment to be used with 3D printer applications. Students even use 3D printing in the culinary arts program.

"And when you can see a culinary arts student doing a food-based Coliseum that resembles that of... Rome, you can see the artistic work, the science work, the social studies, the creative writing, the imagination that takes place," Fitzpatrick says. "That forms an ability for that individual to springboard into all kinds of new opportunity in innovation and add new values wherever he or she would go."

But are kids who are learning to use a 3D printer also learning communication and critical thinking skills employers say are hard to find in new recruits? Fitzpatrick says yes, citing a "menu of unlimited opportunities" to promote critical thinking in voc-tech education.

"Vocational-technical teachers from both the academic and vocational side are masterful at creating learning opportunities that capture the new technologies and the new skill sets" for the ever-changing jobs landscape, Fitzpatrick says.

The schools are required to involve business leaders in the development of their curricula in order to keep up with the latest skills and technologies, he adds. He gives the example of lasers being used to align roofing shingles, where roofers used to use chalk.

Asked how he would allay fears of students who worry they're training for jobs that will be taken over by robots, Fitzpatrick says this:

"In my opinion, years ago, the vocational-technical training may have viewed the student as the robot. Today, the student will program, design and repair the robot. They won't be the robot."

This segment aired on October 30, 2017.

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