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Montgomery Technical Education Center Will Prepare Students for Lucrative, Fulfilling Careers


Summer 2012

By David Zaslawsky

A grandmother attending Montgomery Public Schools’ “Careers & Gears Night” had a brief conversation with the district’s superintendent.

The grandmother said that her granddaughter, who was in the eighth grade at the time, was not sure which high school she would attend. The grandmother told MPS Superintendent Barbara Thompson that the eighth-grader will attend the Montgomery Technical Education Center in the fall at the now vacant McIntyre Middle School, which will be renovated.

“We’ve been trying to create programs for all kids to make sure that they have career pathways and we are looking at strength areas for students,” Thompson said. “Out of all the initiatives I have done since I’ve been here, I think this is going to be one of the most important because it will impact the most kids. I think it will really capture and engage kids in a way that we have not in this school district.”

Talk about career pathways. The need for welders in Alabama is both scary and hard to fathom when you’re talking about 15,000 just in the Mobile area over the next 10 to 15 years.

That was the projection from Kevin Atkins, work force development manager for Mobile-based Austal USA. The Australian company, which has U.S. Navy contracts, needs 1,000 welders right now, according to Atkins.

The state needs skilled workers – make that desperately needs skilled workers. There is a current need for 3,500 construction-related jobs in Alabama and more than 200 of those are in the Montgomery area, according to Jason Phelps, assistant director of the Alabama Construction Recruitment Institute.

The importance of the skilled trades is not lost on Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, who signed a proclamation naming a late week in April as “Alabama Skilled Trades Week.”

“As we continue to rebuild our state after last April’s devastating tornados, I recognize the importance of bringing attention to the need for skilled tradesmen to help us rebuild,” Bentley said in a statement. “We will need skilled workers for years to come not only to help us replace what we lost but also to help our state continue to grow. Recruiting more students to skilled trade careers will improve our work force, help us recruit business and industry and lower our unemployment rate.”

Recruiting more students to skilled trade careers is exactly what MPS is doing. The career tech center could handle between 300 and 400 students in the fall, according to Thompson, and that number could grow to 600-plus after two years when another building is renovated and depending on student interest.

“Students in career tech have a different strength – different aptitude and it’s one that we marginalized in the past as not being as important or as good as the others – I think that has been a problem,” Thompson said.

That is the past. Right now, student interest was overwhelming and shocked school officials, who expected a couple of hundred students and parents, but more than 700 attended the Careers & Gears Night at the Multiplex at Cramton Bowl. There were also a dozen or so manufacturers, who had booths at the event.

Alabama Power had a booth and handed out information, including a sheet about line workers, who start out at $14.75 an hour and after becoming a qualified apprentice (six to 12 months) the pay jumps to $23 an hour.

A brochure from the program stated: “Start preparing for a lucrative, fulfilling career today at the new Montgomery Technical Education Center” and “You don’t have to go to college and get a traditional four-year degree in order to make a life for yourself.”

Phelps told the students and their parents that the average age of construction workers in Alabama is 40 and the average age of skilled workers is 50.

MPS plans to launch its Technical Education Center in phases. One of McIntyre’s two classroom buildings will be used in the first phase, according to Mike Rutland, president of JMR Architecture, which will work in conjunction with W.L. Bush Architect & Associates to renovate the buildings.

The career tech students will then move to the newly renovated building so their original classrooms can be gutted and upgraded, which will take about two years, according to Rutland.

The students will also take their core classes at the tech center. Thompson said the career tech classes will be in the following fields: carpentry/millwright; industrial maintenance, which includes electrical, plumbing and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) and welding. “I think this community needs those skills,” Thompson said. “You need good welders. You need plumbers. You need electricians.”

Thompson said that the career tech program will have an entrepreneur strand “so our kids will be taught how to run their own business and money management because we think that’s important. You can start on this pathway; go back to school; expand, but it gives you a foundation and money to do those things that maybe you otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.”

“Career tech is a program that benefits all students,” said Nancy Beggs, director of education programs for the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce and the former director of Career Technical Education for the State of Alabama.

She said that a physician is taught in the same manner as a career tech student: Told about something; shown how to do it; and then do it themselves. “That’s why the lab experience in career technical education is so important because students have got to be able to practice what they have been taught to do. That practice involves the combination of the academic skills that they learn and the technical skills that they learn.”

Thompson said it’s a 12-month program with students working in the summer and will earn certificates and some students will have dual enrollment with H. Councill Trenholm State Technical College.

“When kids are in their strength area, you don’t see discipline problems,” Thompson said. “They are engaged. They’re doing what they love doing and they feel good about it. They are in their world – like a fish in the water.”

The business community has thrown its support behind the career tech program and has given assurances about hiring graduates.