Wylie High School junior Cody Carrigan's automotive inspiration started in his own garage long before he stepped foot in Cisco College's automotive technician classes.
He said he tinkers with cars at home, often with his father. His grandfather also helped steer him toward the automotive industry.
When Carrigan steps into class, it's more business-like, he said.
"This is more like job training than what I do at home," he said. "Here, we're learning more of the process. Things like engine diagnosis. At home I'm doing this just for fun."
Carrigan is one of many Abilene students involved in Career and Technical Education classes in Abilene. The classes not only fill a need for student but also for local employers who need workers.
Carrigan's classmate, Marshall Lee, also a junior at Wylie, is much like Carrigan. Lee grew up around cars, with his father racing as a hobby. Lee has even sold a sports car that had seen better days before he fixed it.
Their class at Cisco, he said, is about focusing on the basics. It's providing the students a solid foundation on which to build if they choose to continue in the automotive field.
"We're getting the basics down," Lee said. "We'll be able to put this knowledge to use with bigger and better things later on. It's a good starting point coming here."
Neither Lee nor Carrigan really see auto mechanic as their future career, they said. Lee has visions of joining the military, while Carrigan plans to pursue a four-year degree in environmental science.
But both are learning skills they can use if they wanted to find their way into the mechanic's garage.
Roy Call, who teaches the course for Cisco, said the Wylie students are earning a couple hours of college credit that could translate to one of three certifications his program offers.
There's a Level 1 certification, which takes one year of schooling. It's essentially the basic training, Call said, without much specialty. A Level 2 certification takes about 18 months to achieve and requires students to study a little more.
Then there's the associate's degree, which students can achieve by completing not just the automotive technician program but also general studies courses in subjects like math, English and history.
Four-year or beyond degrees are not required in fields like automotive tech, a trend that's showing across many job markets in Texas right now, according to a study by the National Skills Coalition.
The Washington D.C.-based organization studied 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics and found that across Texas between 2010 and 2020, 49 percent of all jobs will be what's considered middle-skill. These are the jobs requiring some form of college but not a four-year degree.
By comparison, the coalition found, only 29 percent of jobs requires four years or more of post-secondary education. Just 15 percent are what's considered low-skill, which don't require any post-secondary education.
Furthermore, the organization said jobs in the middle-skills range make up 55 percent of the labor market, but only 43 percent of workers in the state are trained to perform these essential tasks. High-skill and low-skill workers outnumber the available jobs, the study found.
Middle-skill jobs, like automotive mechanic can be satisfying jobs and pay well, Call said. He started teaching the Cisco class about two years ago after spending 25 years working as a mechanic for General Motors. He said rookie mechanics can enter the job market, without much of the debt that hampers students with bachelor's or master's degrees, and can earn $13-$15 per hour as apprentices.
After learning on the job, receiving guidance from a more experienced technician and moving up in the ranks, a mechanic can earn $20 per hour and, if specialized and experienced, can see $45 or $50 per hour.
In Call's class, very little book learning goes on. For the first semester, students learn about the various parts and processes of a vehicle. They learn about brakes, transmissions and what makes the vehicle drive. In the second semester, students take apart a truck and put it back together . Their final grade is to get the project running again.
"What I love about this course is it's hands-on," Call said. "They're not just going to class and reading in the textbook. They're building an engine right now. They get more out of it when it's like that."
Students work on a car engine. (Photo: Nellie Doneva/Reporter-News)
Career, not job, education
February is Career and Technical Education Month across the country, which organizations like Abilene's Team Workforce have been promoting.
Locally, the focus has been overwhelmingly set on developing skilled workers who are interested in taking on jobs that will both pay them well and fill the needs of local employers. Under the leadership of Seaton Higginbotham, president of Arrow Ford, the Abilene Chamber of Commerce team visited each of the local high schools, trade schools, colleges and universities in the area to get a feel for how this is happening.
Abilene Independent School District is leading the local charge in CTE under House Bill 5, which required all high schools to adjust how they prepare students for life beyond the 12th grade.
House Bill 5, also referred to as the Foundation High School Program, requires all eighth-grade students, before entering high school, to select one of five focuses for their studies. Within those five, four are CTE-based. The last, the high school equivalent of a college's general education diploma, does offer the opportunity to take CTE courses to fill requirements.
At Abilene ISD, this has resulted in a 126-page course catalog, of which 73 pages are devoted exclusively to CTE courses. Ryder Appleton, the district's director of CTE, said the focus on preparing students for careers is an important factor.
But he is wary of the all-too-often comparisons to vocational education. There's a negative stereotype in education communities, especially among students, associated with the word "vocational." That's focused on preparing students for jobs, he said. And while that's one portion of CTE, it's not what the overall program looks like.
"We are making students career-ready," Appleton said. "Not necessarily job-ready."
Citing the National Skills Coalition study, he said the district owes it to its students to make sure they're prepared to gain the knowledge and skills they'll need to seek out and earn livings in productive industries if that's the direction they choose to pursue.
Cynthia Pearson has a dilemma on her hands this year.
Ten years ago, the president and chief executive of Day Nursery of Abilene helped launch a CTE program for high school students exploring careers in early childhood education. After a decade of success, though, her program only has two participants this month.
What started out as a way to identify local individuals who could be productive workers right out of high school has been hampered by the school district's decision to not provide students with transportation. It's now up to the students and their families to make sure they go from Abilene High to any of the three Day Nursery locations and then back to school for the day's conclusion.
It's a task many families can't afford.
"We're trying to get that changed," Pearson said of the transportation struggles. She said she's met with Abilene High Principal Robert Morrison to discuss the issue and she's hopeful something can be worked out.
Until then, or until some other ideas are proposed, the CTE program she started after touring a mock classroom at Cooper High School will be on life support.
Another issue Day Nursery of Abilene faces is, unlike careers like automotive tech, working for a nursery is considered more of a low-skills job with employees able to join the workforce directly out of high school with no experience. Even the CTE program's training isn't required.
But students, upon graduating, can pursue associate's degrees if they choose. A special credential, awarded to some participants in the CTE class, gives these students a small boost, as the Child Development Associate credential serves as the equivalent of the first two credit hours in many early childhood education pursuits, Pearson said.
As the job is considered low-skill, that starting salary for employees is significantly lower than the middle- or high-skill jobs. Still, the organization has made significant strides to pay its employees about $10 per hour, Pearson said.
"One of the concerns early on was that the school would be putting resources into teaching a field where the students wouldn't be able to earn a livable wage," she said. "We've made a lot of strides to get up to that livable wage."
In the actual classrooms, the students are working every day with teachers — some of whom themselves are graduates of the Abilene ISD CTE program — to learn how to work with the children, whether it be babies or toddlers.
Brenda Peak, program director for Day Nursery of Abilene, said she's hired about 30 former students from the program over the last 10 years, with some still working there today.
Roy Call helps Wylie High School student John Smith, left, in the automotive program at Cisco College. (Photo: Nellie Doneva/Reporter-News)
Learning in teams
Another aspect of CTE is the community it forms. Appleton, AISD's CTE director, said this is one area he takes great pride in directing.
AISD and other districts pride themselves on how students perform in specialized competitions and this year, more than 100 Abilene students have progressed in their CTE fields to compete at the state level. A few have even moved on to national competitions.
Names like Texas Association of Future Educators (TAFE), the Texas Public Service Association (TPSA) and Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology (BEST) Robotics represent the most successful groups in Abilene ISD so far this school year. Many more have yet to compete.
Appleton cherishes these groups because of the skills they reinforce within the learning. The students learn to think critically, he said, and solve problems. These groups almost never require students to memorize problems and solutions and ask them to repeat the answers in a test, he said.
"Instead, they're given a skeleton of what's to be done but not the instructions," Appleton said. "This is teaching the kids to think. They're very extemporaneous. They learn how to think on their feet and speak on their feet."