Like many kids his age, 17-year-old Zack Johnson loves cars. “I always grew up with Corvettes,” says Zack. “My dad had three, and I grew up loving them.”
It’s one of the reasons the high schooler enrolled in Ron Moore’s auto body class with his twin brother Brice at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center, where they learn to repair, rebuild and repaint cars. In another year, when the Johnsons graduate from CATEC, they will be I-CAR certified – it’s the industry standard for automotive technicians – and ready to work: no post-secondary experience or training necessary.
That’s a change, Moore says, given a tight job market in which auto technicians easily earn $40,000 a year to start, but have the potential for six-figure salaries through commission work. “The job market is wide open,” notes Moore. “I have shops every day, calling me, wanting people, desperately needing people. A few years ago there were enough people in the job market, with 5, 6, 7 years of experience, they didn’t need entry-level technicians.
Before COVID, interest in technical education was already on the rise. The number of Virginia high school graduates who have taken at least two technical education courses has increased by nearly 14% between 2017 and 2020. CATEC enrollment has increased by 40% over the past two years.
Students say learning a trade can enhance their college education, provide them with a back-up plan, help them avoid student debt and, as Pleasant Green, a 17-year-old electrical student, says, “start doing banking”.
“I was told you had to go to college to get a good-paying job, but then you come here and it’s like ‘you can start working right off the bat,'” Green says. “Last year it took away from that full high school school experience, so I feel like during the pandemic, it’s helped open a lot of people’s eyes to what’s out there and what’s different. .
What exists, says David Eshelman, who directs the Career, Technical and Adult Education branch of the Virginia Department of Education, is more than your father’s workshop classroom. The state’s 133 school systems and 20 technical high schools offer hundreds of courses in 17 career groups matching labor market demand, from energy to carpentry, from veterinary to turf management. “People have realized that maybe there’s another way, and maybe it doesn’t require a four-year degree outright, but there are skills that are needed.”
Tenth grader Zion Gant-Washington already has a job once he completes his electrical certification. “My friend’s dad does electrical work, and he said to me, ‘Zion, if you ever get into electrical, you’ll get a job with us.'”
Even if they plan to get a bachelor’s degree, some students, like Austin Richardson senior, think that a technical background is a plus. He hopes to work in aerospace after four years at university. “I would like to work on rockets, as a practical job. I don’t really want to sit behind a desk all day. That’s why I like it in the store, because I can stand up and take things apart and put them back together.
Senior Soren Poole earns electrical certification and has been accepted into UVA. “It’s largely to get more experience back home and have a backup if college doesn’t go well. You could be paid the same amount, without going to college and without having a lot of debt.
CATEC Director Stephanie Carter hopes the lure of well-paying work will translate into more respect for the people she calls “the fuel and engine of this economy and this country.”
“There has been a real recognition that a job in the skilled trades is not only noble but extremely valuable and that there is a real need in our economy for it,” Carter said.
Children recognize it too. A recent report revealed the percentage of American teenagers intend to complete a four-year degree has fallen by almost a quarter since the start of the pandemic and job opportunities because people without a baccalaureate are abundant.
The Johnson twins, who will be working at Taylor’s Auto Body Shop in Charlottesville this summer, are already planning their incomes. “A Nissan Skyline R-32, in night purple, super dark, it looks black until it’s in the sun,” says Brice. “C-5 from the late 90s,” adds Zack. “That will be great.”