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A Job When They Graduate: The Growing Focus On Vocational Training In Illinois

Peter Medlin
A welding class at Illinois Valley Community College

More and more students are turning to vocational career programs, and schools and state government are taking notice. In this week's Friday Forum, WNIJ's Peter Medlin talks with students, teachers, and administrators at Illinois Valley Community College about their vocational programs.




Alexandria Zebrauskas is in her second semester in the welding program at Illinois Valley Community College (IVCC). She's got one more semester before she earns her first certificate.

She took it for fun with some friends and her dad. Now she's thinking welding could be more than a hobby. 

"Maybe get into a career," Zebrauskas said. "But I'm also getting the certificate just so I can have it."

Either way, she thinks a career in a vocational field makes the most sense for her, instead of a four-year degree.

"I think it's easier to get into a trade and actually start making money, in my opinion, to get a trade instead of going to school and getting in so much debt," she said. "I'd just rather get into a trade and make some money right out of it."

She's not alone in that line of thinking. In fact, the State of Illinois is catching on to the potential these tech programs offer. In the next budget, Gov. J.B. Pritzker proposed a $5 million boost to K-12 vocational funding.

During his campaign, Pritzker often spoke about the need for technical training, even visiting several schools to talk about it with local leaders.

Zebrauskas and her welding instructor John Engelman.

And even though the funding is for K-12, the effect would be felt at community colleges like Illinois Valley which is investing heavily in vocational programs.

From welding to nursing to agriculture, they're seeing growth in student interest and jobs available in those fields.

IVCC is even expanding to include a new cybersecurity program next year.

Shane Lange is the school's director of Workforce Development. He says a strong economy and low unemployment are fueling development in these areas.

"Every one of the programs we offer in my division, workforce development, is either steady for job growth or really bright," he said. "So there's going to be a job when they graduate from the program with their skills."

In many cases, Lange said, there might be too many jobs available.

"One of the things local industry is telling us is we don't have enough students for them," he said. "There are many jobs and there's a deficit in the employees or the knowledge that's out there right now."

That's a bottom-line issue for some companies -- especially manufacturers. Lange cites stats from the Association for Career and Technical Education:

"Eighty percent of those manufacturers say they're going to experience a talent shortage that's going to affect what they can produce for their product or customers."

In light of that, some manufacturing companies are partnering to shoulder some of the financial load to get students into these fields and into their workforce. That's according to IVCC President Jerry Corcoran.

"If you're a good candidate for them, they'll provide half the cost for you to get through the program, and as soon as you graduate and get a job with them they'll provide you the other half as a sign-on bonus," said Corcoran.

Welding shop at IVCC.

This happens in health-care programs as well, where nursing programs are often overflowing with applicants.

IVCC has partnerships with local hospitals where they'll underwrite the cost of an instructor and allow students to do clinical work there.

And in return: "They get first dibs on our graduates and they get a chance to make sure they're going to hire people who are well prepared," said Corcoran.

IVCC's student body continues to change. In most of their vocational programs, the split between traditional college students and adult learners is about 50/50. Often those adult learners are working in their profession and come back to grab another certification.

Also, the average age of IVCC students has fallen in the last couple of years to around 22 or 23.

The programs keep transforming as well, mostly to accommodate new technology. Lange says people are worried about automation, but the jobs that'll disappear will be low-level ones -- not the careers they train for.

Art Koudelka is an automotive instructor. He's been at Illinois Valley for 30 years and agrees his trade is evolving.

"It's like a lot of vocational areas," he said. "We have a lot of older folks aging out, some new tech is pushing some guys out. We need students that want to come in and be trained."

As for other tech-oriented programs, Lange says cybersecurity is an obvious choice.

"It's actually one of the biggest growing career fields," he said. "There's going to be 28,000 jobs nationally going into next year for cybersecurity, and it's a two-year career where you can have a huge median salary. It's somewhere around $95,000 a year for someone with a two-year degree in that area."


At IVCC, and across the state, schools are working to raise awareness for these options outside of a bachelor's degree.

They've held career expos with an area career center, and they visit local high schools and middle schools to talk to them.

Lange says the students he's talked to seem to have a different perspective on money and careers than they did even a few years ago. "My favorite part is when they do the financial literacy and they see what it costs, $4,000 a month they can get in this technical degree, and it only takes two years to pay that money back to pay for their associate degree," he said.

Many of their vocational programs are also transferrable into four-year degrees at places like Northern Illinois University. Agriculture is one of those programs.

Willard Mott is an agriculture instructor and program coordinator. He says the USDA is projecting 22,000 ag jobs will open annually for the next five years and could be filled by people without the necessary agriculture degree or experience.

"That's concerning because it's not just labor jobs, it's about people who are looking at how we grow and produce food and people setting policies," Mott said.

Across the state, schools are looking for increases in higher-ed funding like that $5 million for vocational training. But Lange says the work isn't done yet. 

"We're moving in the right direction, but we need help," he said.

He says it'll take more than what the current budget allots for education to get the state back to its pre-budget impasse numbers.