Aalijah Remington sat in the cab of a semi-tractor trailer parked at the Truck Country Technical Institute south of Dubuque on a recent afternoon.
Nearby, the Dubuque Senior High School student’s classmates lay underneath the truck checking for leaks and inspecting components of the vehicle.
Remington turned to Todd Trentz, a Truck Country instructor teaching the course in which Remington is enrolled.
“We found an air leak, by the way,” Remington said.
He and his classmates are in Dubuque Community Schools’ new diesel technician program, in which students head out to Truck Country to learn the basics of repairing heavy-duty trucks and diesel engines. Students in the course earn credit both from their high school and from Northeast Iowa Community College.
“In the future, I want to work on heavy-wheeled machines, so this is basically a step into the real world,” Remington said.
The diesel technician program is among Dubuque Community Schools’ newest career and technical education offerings, through which students learn skills needed to ready them for various careers. It also marks one of the district’s latest efforts to introduce students to career options more generally while they are in school.
Local school leaders say courses aimed at preparing students for a wide variety of future careers have a strong following. They also are investing in and finding new ways to introduce students to potential job prospects and to help them discover where their career interests lie.
They say such efforts have a key role to play in helping students get a jump start on their lives after high school.
“We want students, by the time they leave high school, to have a plan, whether that be going on to a two-year or a four-year (college) or into the military or directly into the workforce, just to have the tools to navigate changes in their life and career,” said Sharon Wendt, director of the career and technical education team at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
A variety of options
Career and technical education courses are popular offerings in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin and allow students to explore a wide variety of potential career areas.
In Iowa, CTE programs are organized into six service areas — agriculture, food and natural resources; arts, communications and information systems; applied sciences, technology, engineering and manufacturing; health sciences; human services; and business, finance, marketing and management.
The Dubuque district offers courses in every area except agriculture, with students having the chance to take courses in business, early childhood education, culinary skills, health occupations, manufacturing, auto care, computer science and a bevy of other areas.
“I think one thing that people misunderstand about CTE is that it’s only certain types of jobs, like it’s only manufacturing or it’s only architecture or construction, but it’s also all science, technology, engineering and math,” said David Moeller, the district’s educational support leader in career and technical education. “It is all types of classes.”
During the 2019-2020 school year, 100,558 Iowa students were enrolled in at least one CTE course, the highest number in the preceding five years and about 2.4% more students than in the 2015-2016 school year, according to a 2021 report from the Iowa Department of Education.
The number of work-based learning courses being offered in the state rose steadily over the five-year period being examined, as did student participation in those classes. Schools also were offering more college-credit CTE courses.
In the Dubuque district, 1,933 students are enrolled to take CTE classes this school year, a number that is down from the 2018-2019 school year but an increase over last year, according to district data.
In Illinois, 278,883 high school students participated in CTE during the 2019-2020 school year — 46% of students in ninth through 12th grades. That number was down from the year before but higher than the 2016-2017 school year.
In Wisconsin, about 84,000 high school juniors and seniors participated in CTE in the 2019-2020 school year, up from just over 82,000 the year before, Wendt said.
“I think that’s important because we know that it can be more expensive to offer some of the career and technical education programs because of the resources and equipment, so to see this continue to increase really does show us that districts value this,” she said.
Local educators and administrators also reported strong, steady interest in CTE offerings.
“(Students) absolutely love them because everything is so hands on,” said Brooke Deppe, a school counselor at Galena (Ill.) High School. “… You’re up, and you’re using tools, and you’re planting plants, and you are learning to cook, and you’re learning to sew. It’s more action-based classes, but the kids love them. They’re all just full, just busting.”
Dubuque Community Schools officials in recent years have added multiple opportunities to introduce students to different career paths, and one of the district’s priority initiatives for this year is to educate and coach students on different job pathways and increase career-focused opportunities.
In addition to the new diesel technician program, officials are readying to launch an emergency medical technician class next semester in partnership with NICC. At the end of the class, students will be eligible to take an EMT certification exam.
Moeller also is working on a continuing education class for teachers to help them understand how they can connect their curriculum to life after high school.
“It’s all about, what can I do in my classroom whether I’m a school counselor, whether I’m an administrator, whether I’m a classroom teacher pre-K through (12th grade) … to connect the curriculum to what their life is going to look like after high school or what careers they’re interested in or what interests they have,” Moeller said.
Other area schools and state-level officials likewise are investing in career and technical education opportunities.
In 2015, officials at Western Dubuque High School in Epworth opened a nearly 14,000-square-foot vocational building that currently houses automotive and manufacturing classes.
Officials now look to double the size of the building to create a new home for agriculture, construction and engineering courses, Principal Jacob Feldmann said. He said he expects construction on that project to start next year.
“Our goal is to continue to promote those CTE programs,” Feldmann said.
Iowa Department of Education officials in recent years have focused their attention on making sure students have consistent, equitable access to high-quality CTE programs, said Jeremy Varner, administrator for the department’s division of community colleges and workforce preparation.
That includes asking schools to have students in middle school start planning for high school courses and participating in career exploration activities. State officials also are emphasizing the value of CTE student organizations such as FFA and Future Business Leaders of America. Another effort looks to expand work-based learning opportunities.
“The general rule of thumb is, the more work-based learning, the better,” Varner said. “Students get inspired and a sense of what the world of work is really like.”
In addition to giving students exposure to careers in the classroom, schools are finding new ways to get students into the workplace, too.
Bellevue (Iowa) Middle/High School this fall started a work-based learning class, in which seniors spend 10 hours per week working at employers in their interest areas.
This fall, business teacher and work-based learning coordinator Tracy Weber has students at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, a veterinary clinic, Bellevue Elementary School and other locations.
“They’re at an age where they’re exploring, they don’t really know,” Weber said. “They think they want to be a vet, but they’ve never even worked in a vet clinic, so this is going to give them an opportunity to shadow.”
Bellevue senior Alexa Roeder is spending her semester at Buzz Creative Group near St. Donatus, learning the ropes of what it looks like to work in marketing, which she wants to study in college.
“I think this is a good way to get exposed for college,” she said. “This is going to give me a really big head start on other freshmen to get introduced to marketing and really get a feel, hands on, for what marketing is.”
Jenna Andrews, vice president of Buzz Creative Group, said the business for years has been working with Bellevue schools, offering tours and presentations in hopes of inspiring students with an interest in marketing to take the next step. When the opportunity to take on a student for a semester came up, Andrews was on board.
“It’s almost a win-win, to have that fresh energy in here and these new ideas, but then also to intrigue that student or inspire that student if they are interested in taking the next step,” she said.
Dubuque Community Schools officials are in their second year offering a registered apprenticeship in welding, through which students who have completed necessary coursework are placed with local businesses. Students work in those businesses about 2,000 hours and earn a U.S. Department of Labor-backed credential.
Dubuque district leaders also in recent years have started to offer an internship class, through which students find paid or unpaid positions with an employer and can earn course credit.
This fall, the district started offering a college-credit bearing employability skills with job shadowing class, which officials recommend students take in the fall before the internship class in the spring. In the employability skills class, students can explore workplaces in their interest areas.
The Platteville (Wis.) School District offers students a variety of school-to-work options to help them get into the workforce to explore jobs in areas such as agriculture, business and construction.
District CTE Coordinator Janis Miles said employers have reached out to her looking for student workers both to benefit students and also to find future permanent hires.
“It takes both sides to help educate our students if we want to continue to have highly skilled and knowledgeable employees in the future for all of our different career fields,” Miles said.
Joe Connolly, an industrial technology teacher at Dubuque Senior High School, has been working in Dubuque Community Schools for 26 years and recalls a time when students largely were pushed to pursue four-year degrees after high school.
“That was from a very high level up, not even just in our district,” Connolly said. “Parents and employers, everybody said you need a four-year degree, so that’s where everybody was pushed, and if you didn’t fit in that, you didn’t fit in very well.”
Now, he sees that perception shifting as more and more positions open up that don’t require a four-year college education.
There are apprenticeship programs and community college courses and other opportunities for students to find what they want to do after high school. And even students who do want to pursue four-year degrees still can benefit from the hands-on experience they get in CTE classes, Connolly said.
“I think (strong CTE programs are) very beneficial,” he said. “We have a large workforce in our immediate area. … There’s a lot of career readiness that we need to support.”
Varner noted that his department is starting to see more diversity in career-oriented offerings, particularly as young people will need more postsecondary education and specialized training in the workforce. Students interested in information technology might have a chance to take classes in computer programming or cyber security, and schools also are making more allied health- and manufacturing-oriented courses available.
CTE aims to encompass the “whole world of work,” Varner said, and it long has sought to be responsive to changes in the economy. As the economy becomes more specialized, CTE coursework evolves and adapts.
“There are more programmatic strands than historically, where we might have seen, if you go back 40 years, just a handful of basic pathways,” Varner said.
Moeller said district officials seek to shift conversations toward helping find students a path after high school that interests them and aligns with their values.
Life after high school
CTE classes ultimately helped Bin Edwards, a senior at Hempstead High School in Dubuque, decide what he wants to do after graduation.
Earlier in high school, Edwards took engineering classes but soon realized they weren’t for him. A school counselor recommended he take a metals class, in which he tried his hand at welding and found that he liked it.
“Welding just is really fun to me,” he said. “It’s something I can see myself doing long term.”
He has since taken additional welding classes and now is in a college-credit course, after which he hopes to find an apprenticeship. Edwards doesn’t particularly want to attend college after high school, and an apprenticeship would help him get to work quickly in a well-paying job.
“Experiencing my apprenticeship, I have a head start against other guys that just came straight out of college for it,” he said.
Ultimately, CTE programming and other efforts to expose students to careers aim to help students realize what they want to do after high school, said Mark Burns, the Dubuque district’s executive director of secondary education.
One of the district’s strategic plan goals is to ensure every graduate has had a career or college-ready experience to help them identify areas of interest. CTE and other career-related offerings are one avenue to reach that goal.
Strong CTE programming also comes with a focus on the local community, Moeller noted.
“Public education’s purpose is to prepare the student for anything they want to do beyond high school, and while still doing that, CTE focuses to look at what’s needed in the local community and trying to meet those needs with offering the right course offerings and the right experiences,” he said.
Katie Lenart, college and career readiness coordinator at Wahlert Catholic High School in Dubuque, noted that exposing students to careers can expand their knowledge of what jobs might interest them.
The school offers a college and career readiness pathway in which students take courses to learn about employability skills, participate in job shadows and complete an internship. Wahlert also offers some career-oriented course offerings and works other partners to give students experiences in areas not taught on campus.
“By exploring all the different career options and giving them more exposure, it really expands their possibilities as they look at what they would like to do after high school,” she said.