“No matter where I go and who I talk to, I hear our skilled workforce is aging out, and there’s nobody standing in line to take those jobs,” said Janice Scholz, Brevard County School’s director of Career and Technical Education (CTE).Janice Scholz

That is an ominous start to an interview, but Scholz is very positive and hopeful for the future. Scholz oversees an increasingly popular series of programs within Brevard County Schools. The CTE program includes specific academies, accelerated programs, industry certifications and other pathways to success that do not necessarily include going to college or university immediately upon high school graduation. But there is one big hurdle she faces: the perception that these alternative pathways to career success are somehow beneath our children.

“It’s very hard as a parent to say, ‘My child’s going to be a machinist,’ or ‘My child’s going to be an automotive technician,’ because the American Dream is that we want more for our children. Somehow we’re measuring the success of raising our children on them getting a four-year degree, but nowhere do we talk about four-year degrees that lead to no employment. We need other choices for our students, but we also need parents to accept these choices as equally viable measures of success,” she added.

SH: How do you separate parents’ expectations for their children from a college degree?

JS: Parents add guidance and direction, and schools help as well, but when our children turn 18, we expect them to choose a career path that potentially impacts the rest of their lives. We need to allow that 18-year-old high school graduates still may not know what it is they want to do. I have a 25-year-old daughter who still says, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” I talk to people who are 40 and say the same thing. I try to explain to students and parents that stepping out of high school and into the workforce allows the student time to grow up, experience life, have a work record, meet someone who becomes a mentor and maybe make a wiser decision. And maybe even have an employer who’ll help pay for school.

SH: The possibility that an employer can help with school costs raises a few eyebrows, right?

JS: It does. We don’t talk about kids graduating with degrees owing $40,000 or more and still not finding jobs because they don’t have marketable skills, and we also never talk about professional engineers who come out of school and don’t know how to turn a wrench or architects who haven’t built a single building. I suggest to parents and students that even if a student goes to college part time, and it takes eight or nine years to finish, but they’ve been working for a company all that time, they’re building a work history. They’ve been moving up the company ladder, and that company says, “We really like this kid. We’re going make sure we have a place for him or her.” 

SH: Or, they’ve been moving around determining not only what they like to do, but maybe more importantly, what they don’t like to do?

JS: Exactly. I always use our Certified Nursing Assistant (CAN) program as an example of this. Our CNA students must do clinicals and spend more than 60 hours in a clinical environment. They go to the hospitals in rotations, and they go to nursing homes. Some of them quickly realize they don’t want to be a nurse, or they realize it’s exactly what they want to do. “I can’t wait.” Or they say, “I don’t like bedside nursing, but while I was there I saw a physical therapist working with a patient and that looks interesting.” That’s the key — eliminate or validate the choice.

SH: That’s a very convincing argument.

JS: But it’s hard to change the perceptions and expectations of parents and students. We all want our child to have that college experience, but we need to stop making our kids feel like they’re a failure if they don’t go to the state university, especially when that university may not have the program that’s the best fit for them. 

SH: How does CTE fit in once you get parents and students to listen?

JS: Students who enroll in our programs get a better sense of what they want to do. Those complex formulas they’re learning in physics and calculus become real. The slope they learn about in math becomes the pitch on a roof for a student in construction. It brings the complex math to the practical application. The student who doesn’t get those formulas because it doesn’t make sense suddenly understands when you show it in the context of building a concrete structure. 

This makes me passionate about our programs. Our kids can leave with the certifications they earn in our programs and often get a job immediately well above entry level. I tell them it’s just a different pathway. Your child becomes an electrician, and then maybe his company encourages him and he goes on to be an electrical engineer. Would it not be better to be an electrical engineer who actually has some basic hands-on knowledge of how electricity works?

SH: What kind of support do you get from the community, from local industry?

JS: Every February I do a curriculum contact meeting during which I take our assistant principals out on tours of industry. We started with a local manufacturer in Titusville, and I put together a panel of other manufacturers’ engineers. Not one of them went directly to college out of high school, and they were now all engineers. They said to us loud and clear, “Quit telling kids they have to be good in math and science to be an engineer. Give us kids who tinker, who can take things apart and put stuff together. Kids with a creative mind.”

SH: This is an exciting time to be in education.

JS: It is. There are so many vastly different career possibilities on the Space Coast, and many of our programs support those possibilities. I look forward to developing new programs that provide our students with viable choices and alternatives. ◆