Career and technical education classes diversify to meet industry needs in Chandler

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The number of students enrolled in career and technical education courses has steadily increased over the years in Chandler, and in response partnerships with businesses and industry professionals are leading to more opportunities for student internships and the creation of talent pipelines for companies looking to fill trade positions.

Career and technical education, known more commonly as CTE, is the practice of teaching specific career skills to students in middle school, high school and postsecondary institutions. Students in Chandler high schools are able to take classes during their typical school day as electives and work their way toward earning a certification that can get them into a career immediately after graduation, if they so choose.

Chandler USD has 19 CTE program clusters that each have a variety of classes. Students can take classes in automotive technology, bioscience, business, cabinet making, culinary arts, digital photography, drafting, early childhood education, engineering sciences, fashion design and merchandising, graphic and web design, marketing, film and television, network security, nursing, plant systems, software development, sports medicine and technical theater.

In Maricopa County, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Services, construction, administrative and waste services, information technology, health care and social assistance, finance and insurance, and manufacturing are the top in-demand industries.

Comfort Systems USA Southwest President Joe Nichter said he is seeing a significant labor shortage in filling positions at the heating, ventilation and air conditioning business.

“It is not a quick path to fill this shortage,” Nichter said, noting he is waiting for students to get out of school and workers to get out of apprenticeships.

He said in order to fill the positions he needs, he needs technicians and leaders.

“I don’t want to see schools teaching a kid to turn a wrench; I want them to learn about technology and customers so they are better prepared for the future,” Nichter said.

Changes in CTE perceptions

About a decade ago, longtime Chandler educator Ken James said he saw a shift in the way career and technical education courses were talked about.

“It used to be these classes were for the kids that weren’t going to college,” James, executive director of educational programs, said. “There was a stigma on ‘those kids’ who took those classes; it was expected they’d get blue-collar jobs. Now CTE is seen as really for all students.”

With a mentality shift and a change in programming over the years, enrollment in CTE courses has increased, according to CUSD officials. About five years ago enrollment across the district’s six high schools in CTE programs was at 5,858. In the 2019-20 academic year, that enrollment was 7,391. James said much of that growth is due to the opening of Camille Casteel High School in 2015. James said that while Casteel is the biggest contributor for enrollment growth, he hopes "additional promotion of CTE programs and families understanding the value of taking CTE classes has contributed to some of the growth."

“It used to be called ‘vocational education,’ and classes were limited to agriculture and auto and cabinet making,” said Lindsay Duran, assistant director of CTE for CUSD. “Then we looked at trends in our community and added more options and made adjustments over time. Chandler stands out because we look at what is happening and what is coming up and what we can add for students.”

In the 2019-20 school year, CUSD added its network security CTE program at Basha High School. The program is designed to teach students cybersecurity skills.

“Students can start as freshmen and continue through their senior year in these classes, and by the time they finish, they can come out with multiple certifications preparing them for a job,” Duran said.

Duran and James said CUSD is continuing to look at expanding CTE offerings based on industry needs, but also based on student interests. The district is in the early stages of looking at a first responders CTE program.

“I see CTE only getting bigger and better,” James said. “And we are always looking at new programs here in Chandler.”

What CTE offers students

Classes in CTE programs offer hands-on training for students, Duran said. It is required that at least 51% of class time is spent doing hands-on training, she said.

“They learn the content and then can immediately apply it,” Duran said. “Sometimes it’s project-based, like making a marketing or business plan. Or in nursing, students will go to clinicals. It’s all about learning the content and applying it in the real world.”

In addition to the courses available at CUSD schools, students can take CTE classes through the East Valley Institute of Technology, which offers more specialty CTE classes, such as 3-D animation, aviation and cosmetology, that many schools do not have the ability to offer. In the 2019-20 school year, 620 students were enrolled in EVIT courses, according to CUSD officials.

But it is more than just training students for a career, though career training is the main focus of CTE.

“They will learn leadership; they will learn how to work with someone else,” James said. “You have to work together as a team a lot of times. Those are just some of the soft skills you don’t get in a traditional classroom.”

Looking to the future of CTE

Gov. Doug Ducey proclaimed February as Career and Technical Education Month in 2019 to recognize the importance of preparing students for college or a career after graduation.

Ducey’s fiscal year 2019-2020 budget invests $10 million to expand CTE offerings across Arizona. Through a grant program, high schools with CTE programs will receive up to $1,000 for each student who graduates with a certification in specific industries.

Renee Levin, community affairs manager at Intel who also served on the Chandler Chamber of Commerce Education and Workforce Development Coalition, said partnerships between businesses and schools to get students interested in CTE programs end up benefiting the community.

“The more training and education a student receives, the more employable she/he is,” Levin said. “The world is changing all the time, and the knowledge gained in high school is simply a foundation. The more solid the foundation, the better the chances that a student will be able to grow and learn as the world changes. All industries benefit from skilled graduates who are prepared for career and college. Making sure all students have the option to pursue a wide variety of areas is key to the success of Arizona—from technology to agriculture, health care to construction.”

Terri Kimble, president and CEO of the Chandler Chamber of Commerce, said it is integral that businesses and industries communicate their needs with educational institutions.

“Chandler has many technology-based companies, yes, but we are also home to manufacturing, electrical, HVAC, auto centers and many other trade-based industries,” Kimble said. “It is important for the chamber to keep its finger on the pulse of workforce development and help to find that balance between high-tech and trade-based jobs, which will continue to be important to the city’s economic growth.”

Duran and James said they are glad stigmas around CTE courses and programs have diminished over the years and that students continue to remain interested.

“CTE is for all kids,” Duran said. “It’s not just for kids who are planning traditional, vocational education careers. It is for all kids; it doesn’t matter if they are going to a university or a technical college; there is a place for every student.”•