Matt Bryant used to think of hands-on work as just a hobby.
The junior at North Medford High School was always more interested in a career in law enforcement or firefighting. But now, as he's enrolled in his school's manufacturing "pathway," or interest-based track in school, Bryant says he has realized other options are available to him.
As one of 10 students in Medford's Career and Technical Education Academy, Bryant spends at least two hours each weekday out at Rogue Community College's High-Tech Center on the Table Rock campus. So far, that time has mostly been spent in front of a computer, learning the safety, quality practices and measurement modules he needs to master before he'll get to put his hand to the array of industrial-grade manufacturing machines filling the facility.
"I realized there's a lot of work you can do with this type of stuff," Bryant said. "I was kind of surprised and happy with the idea because it was like, 'oh I can do something I like to do but make money off of it and have a career off of it.' "
The CTE Academy, a partnership between RCC and Medford School District, is one of the newest efforts in an ongoing goal for the district: to not only keep kids with a more diverse set of interests engaged in school long enough to graduate, but also to prepare them to step into a career beyond graduation.
"That's the challenge we're trying to meet," said Hal Jones, Medford's pathways coordinator and 28-year veteran of the district. "How do we personalize, how do we create relevant modular learning experiences for kids, instead of forcing students to conform to that one-size-fits-all model?"
Industry and business leaders, many of whom partner with the academic institutions to create CTE opportunities such as the academy, attest to the need for skilled laborers in the region.
Brad Bennington, executive officer of the Builders Association of Southern Oregon, said that since the recession decimated the local construction workforce, it has only recovered to 40 percent of pre-recession levels. That population is also aging.
“You can’t wave a magic wand and create all these people,” he said, noting that the labor also can’t be outsourced to a remote area. “These are all local jobs, local people, local companies that need real live people to do the work.”
That school districts largely stripped vocational education out of high schools in the latter part of the 20th century, meaning that very few new workers have been available to fill those empty positions.
“What we have today is a situation where kids are coming out of high school and they don’t have the skills and abilities to be employable in our industry,” Bennington said.
The solution to the labor shortage, school and industry leaders believe, looks like Bryant, who will leave his manufacturing program with a Certified Product Technician credential at the end of May.
Other CTE Pathways the Medford School District offers include a culinary track, a marketing option, metals, automotive and health science focuses.
They also offer a credential of some kind: students enrolled in the seven-week caregiving training from Jan. 22 to March 12 this year earned a Caregiver Certificate (and $11 per hour part-time job paid by Rogue Health Services Partnership). Students in the automotive pathway can graduate with an Automotive Service Excellence credential.
Participants in the CTE Academy can also leave with up to 13 credits with RCC.
Dr. Leo Hirner, RCC’s vice president of instruction, called the program a “win-win” for school districts and the community college.
“I do not place a limit on what we will try to offer,” he said. “The marketplace will help us determine what programs work for us and the school district and what will serve local needs.”
Hirner, who arrived in the Rogue Valley last year, said that the five-campus Metropolitan Community College he came from in Kansas City, Missouri, has well-established partnerships with local school districts. Just as a labor shortage isn’t unique to Southern Oregon, neither are efforts to find solutions.
Though students don’t consider pathways until high school, both Jones and Hirner said that it’s important to continue to expose them to career paths before then.
It’s what Jones thinks will help even out gender imbalances within the program. All 10 students participating in this round of the manufacturing CTE Academy are male. The caregiving pathway, he said, is majority female.
“How do you counter the tide of culture?” Jones said. “We’re creating very intentionally STEM-related classes and learning experiences at least at the fifth grade level, if not all the way down to kindergarten.”
Hirner also said that part of the rationale of exposing students to careers earlier is so that they won’t have to spend time and tuition money figuring out what they want to do after enrolling in college or community college. Entering with a set path in mind, he said, will shorten their time.
“We like ’em here,” he said, “but we want them to get that degree and move on.”