With a new infusion of interest in career-technical education, local high schools are busy organizing hands-on courses into state-certified career pathways to help students move into college and the workforce.
The goal is to help close a growing skills gap in the United States and guide students toward higher-wage, high-demand career tracks.
Oregon began creating career pathways in colleges in the mid-2000s and now counts more than 600 such programs. Clatsop Community College includes nearly 20 programs of study in welding, maritime sciences, firefighting, business, medical and other subjects leading to industry certification and associate degrees.
The state Legislature in 2015 established a funding stream to reimburse school districts that create career pathways for high schoolers. Students must complete several credits in the program before districts can be reimbursed. Students who complete career pathways can also earn college credit and industry certifications.
“There’s more funding, but we’re also seeing that youth involved in (career-technical) programs are more successful,” said Mary Jackson, a career-technical education coordinator for the college who is helping high schools create their career pathways.
Astoria, Warrenton and Knappa high schools already share a health occupations program that sends students to classes at Columbia Memorial Hospital. Astoria and Seaside have business-related career pathways, while Seaside offers a program in construction.
Warrenton and Astoria have two of the only student-run fish hatcheries in the state. Both are trying by next year to create distinct natural resources career pathways that will feature fisheries and expand into related subjects.
Warrenton’s fisheries program, dating to the 1950s, is student-operated and supported by nonprofit Warrenton High Fisheries Inc., founded by alumnus and Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer.
“We’ve been doing this for years,” Rod Heyen, principal of Warrenton High School, said of fisheries. “Now it’s checking the boxes with the state to qualify for programs of studies.”
The school district is close to building a new welding, automotive and technology center paid for by state grants and donations. The natural resources program would incorporate those classes as supports to the hatchery, Heyen said.
Astoria is focused on creating a natural resources career pathway that incorporates the student-run hatchery, along with plant and animal sciences.
“We’re trying to take a hybrid of classes with marine sciences as well as industrial arts and agriculture,” said Astoria High School Principal Lynn Jackson.
The school district’s wood shop teacher, Dan Foss, will soon retire after more than 30 years. The district is looking to replace him with a industrial arts and agriculture teacher, while expanding the high school’s wood shop to include more construction equipment, taking students from small carpentry projects to learning construction trades, Jackson said.
The high school is also looking to expand its greenhouse to allow students to grow plants for sale, and would establish a Future Farmers of America club the district hasn’t had since budget cuts in the late 2000s, Jackson said. Students who go through the programs would also be strong candidates for Clatsop Works, the county’s new internship program.
In addition to natural resources, Warrenton is looking to start a graphic design career pathway. Two years ago, the district started the graphic design class under instructor Brian Vollner and wanted to take computer instruction beyond Microsoft Word, Excel and other basics students already learn in other classes.
Students in Vollner’s class learn the ins and outs of editing photos and creating infographics. Vollner sees the graphic design program adding increasingly complex courses as students advance, culminating in a student-run press.
“What I’d like these kids to do is be ready for upper collegiate classes or to work for a printing press,” Vollner said.
Seaside, home of a competitive culinary arts team, is trying to create a related career pathway by next year. Knappa is also trying to start a career pathway in forestry.
With all the school districts around the state pursuing career pathways, the additional funding from the state could be negligible, Jackson said.
But behind all these efforts is providing students more options to explore before they leave high school, while helping solve the structural underemployment caused by the workforce not having the right skills for in-demand jobs, he said.