Economic club speaker talks technical education

ESCANABA – The Bay Area Economic Club welcomed Brian Sarvello, career and technical education director for the Marquette-Alger Regional Education Service Agency (MARESA), to Bay College Tuesday to discuss the importance and future of career technical education.

Career technical education (CTE), known by many as vocational education, provides hands-on skills and often the possibility of job placement immediately following high school.

“We’ve tried to distance ourselves from vocational education just simply because of the stigma that’s attached to it,” said Sarvello. “Far too many people when you say ‘vocational education’ the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘well, that’s those classes for those kids that just aren’t cut out for college,’ … but nothing could be further from the truth.”

Sarvello notes students studying CTE fields through MARESA have a higher graduation rate than the general population of students. For the class of 2012 the placement rate for CTE students in either jobs or secondary education following graduation was also higher than the general population of students at 96 percent.

Based on the same survey, roughly 75 percent of CTE students continue studying in the career path they began in high school, and 57 percent of the CTE students in Marquette and Alger counties went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree or higher.

“Our kids not only go to college but we’ve got a pretty good percentage that go on to attain a bachelor’s degree or higher. However, for those kids that pursue a certificate or a two-year associate program, what we find is many of them are making more money than their four-year graduate colleagues,” said Sarvello.

Even when students discover a career path they have explored in high school is not a good fit for them, Sarvello believes test driving a career can be good for students.

“Its much better they make that decision in high school rather than after two or three years of college when they’ve wasted how many thousand dollars in tuition,” said Sarvello.

Education costs for CTE students can be further reduced by earning certificates, credentials, or free college credits while still in high school.

“For a couple of our programs in Marquette-Alger County that we host on the campus of Northern Michigan University, students can earn up to 16 credits their senior year while they’re still in high school. That’s a semester of college. It’s just like writing yourself a scholarship,” said Sarvello.

While a growing number of students are entering the workforce immediately after high school and career technical education can lead to better paying jobs, technical education programs still have struggles in Michigan.

“One of the biggest challenges is overcoming the Michigan Merit Curriculum,” said Sarvello. “Now I think it’s great to have high standards – and we certainly don’t want to diminish those standards – but when you have new initiatives like the two-year world language requirement coming on it makes it so much more difficult for our students to schedule CTE.”

However because the focus of CTE is different than much of the general education curriculum, in that skills are taught in a hands-on fashion, teachers don’t need to wait for tests to see the results of their teaching methods and the progress being made by students.

“We also have multiple measures of career and college readiness – which is, of course, is the big catch phrase in education today – and I feel badly for our general ed colleagues, because they’re measured by one test given on one day, the ACT. That’s their measure of career readiness,” said Sarvello.

CTE programs are designed by committees formed with representatives from employers and post secondary education partners who keep educators apprised of what skills are needed and what tools are industry standards. While each career path has different requirements, one thing employers seem to want en masse is a focus on math.

“One thing we hear from those committees repeatedly is ‘you have to up your math skills,’ and that’s almost across the board and almost across every industry,” said Sarvello.

No matter how students pursue their CTE goals, Sarvello believes the skills gained, such as welding or construction, can be applied in everyday life whether students chose to make those skills a career or not. Teachers need to highlight practical applications.

“We know with this generation you’d better show them relevance. You’d better show them how it connects to their life or to their community, otherwise their brains just shutdown and go elsewhere,” he said.