In his State of the Union Address last month, President Barack Obama talked about ways education and training can pave the way to not only an economic recovery, but a strong economic future.
Training, he said, can ensure Americans are there to fill American jobs that are going let unfilled, something that is baffling when the country has an unemployment rate above 8 percent.
One of the ways the United States can start down that road, according to local officials, is through support of places like the Wright Technical Center.
St. Michael-Albertville School Board member and longtime nurse Jeanne Holland is living proof.
Holland, a mother and grandmother today, was a student at Wright Tech during her junior and senior years in high school. It started her on the path of nursing, with a program she took while still completing courses here at .
“It gave me a chance to experience it before I made a commitment. I didn’t have to say, ‘This is my major,’ and then invest money into it. I was able to try it out, and it clicked for me right away,” Holland said.
For nearly 40 years now, Wright Tech has offered those opportunities. Programs have come and gone, but there are constants, including nursing, welding and even automotive repair.
“This was never designed to be traditional high school,” said Julie Warner, the technical center’s director, who was at one time a teacher and then curriculum director since she was hired in 1990. “People can try different careers here. They can find a path. Maybe a third go on into what they originally studied. Maybe another third find a different program here, and that’s what they do for the rest of their life. For the rest, perhaps it’s not for them, and they find their niche in a traditional college or technical school after graduation. But, really, this is a great place for kids who maybe don’t excel in a standard classroom, but know that they’ve got a passion for something and want to pursue it.”
Holland’s nursing program has been broadened into “health sciences,” instructing in areas like medical assistant and transcription.
Other new programs embrace technology. Automotive technicians have to know computers well, and those involved in the building and trades use mathematics, geometry and trigonometry on a consistent basis, said board member Jim Lindberg of Monticello.
“With cars worth more than my first house, you want someone who’s pretty bright to be doing the work,” Lindberg said.
Students are getting training for careers that are literally growing faster than people can fill them.
“There was a bridge contract recently awarded in California to a Chinese company, because they could fill it, and we couldn’t,” said Gary Butkowski, director of the welding program. “We’re going to be short hundreds of thousands of welders when the Boomers retire.”
One of the main battles, Holland said, is perception. Students and even parents can sometimes give Wright Tech students a bad time.
“Parents are going to have a mindset that they know what’s best for their kids. A lot of things out there tell you that has to be a four-year college. And maybe it is the best for many of them. But I’m looking at the jobs that are out there, and the money kids can make with training from a place like this is really good."
And, Holland added, one former administrator has seen that first hand.
"Marcia [Ziegler, former Superintendent of St. Michael schools] often kids her other children that her son who went to technical school is going to make better money, because he’s a welder. Her other two kids are in law school and medical school and are going to come out with all of these loans. So she gets a kick out of that," she said with a laugh.
Holland said she’s passionate about the center, because of what it’s done for her and because she has seen what it has done for other students.
“I just look at the talent here. All of the teachers have job experience in their field. It’s pretty incredible. I think we watch every tax dollar so closely now, but I have no problem investing in a place like this.”