What Knox schools are doing to prep students for careers — whether they attend college or not

Marvin Roos likes his academic courses in school. English, math, social studies — he said he enjoys them all.

But what the South-Doyle High School senior loves are his classes in auto body repair and welding.

“I like working with my hands,” said Marvin, 17. “I just like (welding). It’s fun. It’s amazing. And it pays well, too.”

So when Marvin graduates, he’s likely to take the welding courses and certification he earned in high school to a technical college, where he’ll already be ahead, or perhaps directly into the job field. In Knoxville, a beginning welder can start with an annual salary upward of $33,000. An experienced welder can make more than $56,000 a year; the statewide average is around $40,000.

“The average age of a welder now is 55 years old,” and as welders retire, experienced younger replacements are needed, said welding teacher Jim Thomas, who took a $22,000 annual pay cut when he changed to teaching from welding for a company that produced pharmaceutical-grade water makers. “I’ve had kids who are (now) making six figures.”

Thomas said he enjoyed welding but finds even more purpose in ensuring quality young welders can fill those slots: “I love what I do.”

Four-year degree not the only option

For decades, college was the gold standard for all students. Schools that offered classes in trades and skilled labor tagged them “vocational” and presented them solely as alternatives for kids who wouldn’t or couldn’t go after a four-year degree.

Those classes have changed, said Keith Wilson, director of career and technical education for Knox County Schools — and so have their purposes and people’s perception of them.

“I think we’ve sold that message for a long time, that a four-year degree was somehow equivalent with financial independence, and it was the only way you could get to the place where you could have a living wage and provide for a family,” Wilson said. “That’s just not the case. There are lots of opportunities at lots of different levels for a student to come out of high school and to take a job, go into a training program on the job, or get an apprenticeship, certificate or associate’s degree. There’s some great livable wages out there.”

Former Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative highlighted the need for skilled workers to fill jobs in manufacturing, construction, information technology and health care, Wilson said.

People “have started to realize that the baby boomer generation is retiring, and for every three that retires, we’ve got one that’s ready to move back into that role,” he said. “We need to be keeping a pipeline of folks ready to enter those fields. … We’re recognizing there’s a gap.”

Goal is not jobs, but careers

To meet the needs of the job market and the students, Knox County Schools has realigned its vocational classes, now under career and technical education, to fit into 16 nationally recognized “career clusters.” They’ve gathered input from the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, including a 10-year projection on which skills will be most in demand in the region.

“We’re not looking for jobs,” Wilson said. “We’re looking for career pathways.”

That means designing programs so that students can complete industry certifications while still in high school, so they can go directly to work in certain fields after graduation. It also means offering dual enrollment courses that can transfer to a secondary education institution, if a student plans to pursue more education — which many do, Wilson said.

“I think there’s been a notion that going to college meant that you weren’t interested in the trades, and vice versa — that if you were more trade or hands-on oriented, that maybe college was never going to be on the place for you,” Wilson said. “What we’re finding is that there is this place in the middle where what we need each to do is to have some career pathway they’ve had some exposure to, some connection with, prior to getting out of high school.”

Career-tech classes allow students to “try on” different kinds of work to see where their interests and skills lie, he said. Students can also, with certifications they’ve earned in high school, work a “bridge” job as they prepare to go to college for a different job in the same field, he said.

“Our health sciences students, while they are in school, can earn certification to be an EKG technician, certified pharmacy technician or a certified nursing assistant,” Wilson said. “We have a lot of kids who will earn that certification and go to work while they’re in school,” for example, working as a CNA while in school to become a registered nurse or nurse practitioner.

Classes to fill worker gaps

All Knox County public high schools now offer career tech programs, Wilson said, although the offerings vary by school. A student who wants to pursue a particular career path can apply for a transfer to a school that offers that course, he said.

Business courses include marketing management, entrepreneurship, accounting, office management, and banking and finance. Health-oriented students can train in nursing services, emergency services, diagnostic services, therapeutic services, sport and human performance, human and social sciences, and dietetics and nutrition. IT classes include A/V production, cybersecurity, web design, digital arts and design, coding and networking. Some schools offer classes in criminal justice and pre-law; some in STEM: Engineering or architectural engineering and design.

More traditional trade offerings include cosmetology, culinary arts, maintenance and light repair, structural systems, collision repair, mechanical/electrical/plumbing systems and welding. Hardin Valley, Karns and Powell offer programs at the Byington-Solway CTE Extension campus that include electromechanical technology, agriculture/horticulture, fire science, diesel, and early childhood education and development.

Wilson said the Chamber of Commerce has worked with individual schools to find businesses in their zones interested in mentoring students and hiring graduates.

Alex Ciborowski, existing industries manager for the Chamber, said she frequently gets calls from companies looking to hire qualified, reliable workers who can pass a drug screen — particularly in manufacturing and information technology.

“Many times, the issue is identifying a candidate with the right technical skillset to be able to perform in the role,” she said. “The school system and our post-secondary and training institutions are working very hard to bridge the gaps. Unemployment is very low, so finding people can be hard.”

Last year, the school system set up a career-tech career fair where more than 200 Knox County high school students interacted around 40 contractors and vendors, Wilson said. Teachers helped students prepare resumes and hone interviewing skills. A handful of students were hired from that fair, he said.

A taste or a track

The career-tech classes Aimee Perry is teaching at South-Doyle High are a far cry from what Perry experienced when attending Doyle as a student in the late 1980s.

“I went to school here, and you either went to the classes you were going to go to college with, or you went to the vocational classes,” Perry said. “There was no mixing of that.”

Perry’s students might take a health sciences class just to see if it’s something that interests them.

“If it’s not for them, they can choose another pathway,” she said — including preparing for a four-year college degree.

If it is, however, there are opportunities for them to jump-start their careers — such as a work-release program where CNA students can do clinical rotations at a Maryville nursing home.

At South-Doyle, welding students make decorative metal signs to sell for the school. Students in the building trade design and construct the shell of a cabin, which is then auctioned off. Marketing students run the school store, which includes choosing the products — often after surveying students and staff and conducting taste tastes — as well as pricing and promoting. A nationally known barista at Maryville’s Vienna Coffee Company trains them to make coffee drinks, said marketing teacher Heather Lovett. The store grosses $300 a day, which goes back to into the school, Lovett said; tips for students go toward traveling to events with DECA, the national career-technical student organization.

Once they know they can go ahead and work, do students drop out of school for jobs? It’s actually the opposite, Wilson said: The graduation rate among “CTE concentrators,” the roughly one-third of Knox County students who take at least three classes on a career track, has been higher than among students as a whole.

Countywide, the graduation rate for CTE concentrators in 2019 was 98.13%, compared to 91.22% for all students; in 2018, it was 98.3%, compared to 89.85% for Knox County students as a whole.

“When you find something that fits you and you latch into it, I think you’re more motivated” to come to school, whether that’s academics, arts or being on a sports team, Wilson said. “You’ve got a group of kids in the middle who need something to hook into, and I think CTE can be that for some of those kids.”

'Everything's on the table'

With some class tracks, students almost always end up with a job in that field, with most pursuing more education after high school.

Josh Cameron, who teaches an agriculture track of courses under “environmental and natural resource management” and sponsors South-Doyle’s Future Farmers of America club, said his applied environmental science course — such as plant soil science — can transfer to secondary education.

South-Doyle’s greenhouse, in need of new heating and cooling and irrigation systems, isn’t currently functional, something Cameron hopes to remedy so he can teach greenhouse management. But students still grow food, test soil and dissect pigs, among other hands-on projects.

“Most of my kids who stick with me for four years do something in this field when they leave here,” Cameron said.

But Dustin Cradic, who teaches culinary arts, said he has both students who want to work in food service and students who take classes for fun.

“Some take it because they think they’re going to eat all the time, and some take it because they want to make a career out of it,” Cradic said, laughing.

Either way, they can learn safety, sanitation, knife skills, baking, kitchen equipment and food storage. They can compete in local contests for cooking, cake decorating and table-setting. They go through Knox County Health Department’s food safety training and become nationally certified as a ServSafe food handler, so they can work in commercial kitchens or for catering companies.

Sophomore Chris Lazere, 16, said he initially took the course “so I could help my mom make food,” but now is looking at a college minor in culinary arts.

And freshman Dominick Murray, 15, said he wants to gain experience in culinary arts and learn to use equipment so he can decide if it’s the right career path for him. Dominick said he’s also considering careers in engineering and music education — he plays the tuba.


Wilson said in the future, the school system plans to start career conversations and even aptitude tests with middle-school students, to help figure out what career paths they might want to explore when they get to high school.

In middle school, “everything’s on the table, from astronaut to plumber, and that’s a tough place to be,” Wilson said. “You shouldn’t be getting to high school, faced with choosing a high school schedule and all the electives that are options for us and not have a little bit of education about what’s a better or worse fit for me.

“We can help them whittle it down, figure out where their talents and interests collide, so they’re able to make better decisions.”

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Kristi L. Nelson

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org


Published September 27, 2019