Opinion: Cape's vocational schools train next generation of people who make things work

Lawrence Brown

When I was young, what we called vocational schools were for the kids who couldn't do Shakespeare, science or math. Many people considered vocational schools midway between a “real” academic school and a reform school. It suggested some kind of deep inadequacy or failure.

If that was ever true, it's certainly not true now — and certainly not here.

Cape Cod has two technical school campuses turning out the next wave of professionals who know how to fix things, build things and make them work. One campus (known as “Upper Cape Tech”) is in Bourne, and “Lower” Cape Tech is in Harwich. William Terranova, the principal in Harwich, leaned over my interview notes and requested a change. His school is the Cape Tech school. (A little pride of place never hurt.)

So Cape Cod has two regional tech schools. Both are impressive and impressively led. Both are not only full; they have wait lists of kids who want to get into the programs. Ask students and teachers and they’ll tell you their schools are not clones — but they share an approach more or less in common with similar schools across the state.

Half the time is spent on academics, half on professional training. Here is a different model from the strictly academic schools. Starting in their junior year, kids at our tech schools apprentice with local businesses. They do work and get paid salaries above minimum wage. Meanwhile, local businesses keep the schools updated about their professional requirements so the schools can make adjustments to keep their curriculum relevant and marketable. Many tech kids are not only learning skills that will pay them well, but they are also beginning to help their families make rent and put food on the table before they've even graduated from school.

You can help students take expensive, required exams.

In two of the disciplines taught at the Harwich school, students are required to take national board exams in Infection Control and in Radiology Health and Safety. Each of these exams costs the students $270. Here is where interested readers could make a profound difference for one of these kids. Some students need financial help to take these exams. There are kids in these schools who are trying to break a family cycle of poverty, to become self-sustaining, to support a family. If you would like to back up one of these students, contact Brenda Stafford at bstafford@capetech.us.

My first stop in Harwich was in their school of cosmetology. Certification requires 1,000 hours of professional training. This department is open to serve the public, with competitive rates. (The Bourne campus offers this too and a canal-side restaurant. In case you are interested, go to the schools’ websites.) The Harwich automotive training shop is open to the public, as well. No professional dealership on Cape has a shop as spacious, spotless or better equipped. Students are prepared to find jobs in firefighting, culinary arts, tech, including cybersecurity, and a dental technology program ranked as good as any in the country.

My tour in Bourne included a fully-equipped veterinary clinic. There’s no point training kids in anything less than state-of-the-art settings. That’s how they’re so employable. They’re job-ready. Work on the buildings and grounds is often performed by paid, supervised students. Talk about pride of place, I saw no litter or graffiti anywhere in either school.

Some 99.5% of Cape Tech’s graduates are employed or enrolled at other institutions.

Some 99.5% of Cape Tech’s graduates leave their schools either employed or enrolled at other institutions for further study. I had a chance to chat with a senior at Harwich, a lively conversationalist with confidence and enthusiasm. She was pointed toward nursing, but criminal justice interested her, too, and she saw her future packed with possibilities.

Accountability seems to be a big deal at both schools. Faculties are fully aware that industry is looking for not just mechanical competence but character, responsibility and a readiness to work hard like you really mean it. So ethics, including a work ethic, is not understood as a grace note but as fundamental to the whole curriculum.

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Consider for a moment the national lack of carpenters, plumbers, electricians, automobile mechanics, experts in cybersecurity, and professionals in heating and air conditioning technology, and you see the opportunities waiting for these kids. Many of them will be pulling down salaries of $60,000 in their first year of work and possibly past $100,000 per year as they get established.

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It’s all too easy for academic types to forget how our civilization depends on competence — on people who know how to make things and make things work. The challenge for the rest of us, particularly in public policy, is to make sure that our tech graduates can afford to live and contribute here on Cape Cod, where they have been trained so well.

Lawrence Brown is a columnist for the Cape Cod Times. Email him at columnresponse@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Cape tech carpenters, mechanics, plumbers, more needed for Cape work