Photo taken at Lehigh Career and Technical Institute in North Whitehall Township, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Smith)

It’s the role of educational institutions to prepare students for careers, which often meant directing them on a path towards college. But in the past decade, it has become apparent that there is a need to shift focus from directing every high school student toward a four-year degree to jobs in the trades. The past focus on getting a college education meant that fewer students went to trade schools and entered the industry. That, coupled with an aging workforce already in the trades, has left a dearth in not only the number of employees needed for skilled labor, like machining technicians and mechatronics specialists, but it has also left a skill set gap that can only be filled through time spent in training on the job earning experience. 

One way that career and technical schools are helping to prepare their students for the working world is through the use of internships, cooperative education programs, and pre-apprenticeship programs. These critical programs allow students to put the skills they have learned at a technical school to use in the workplace under the guidance of a mentor who trains them.

At Lehigh Career & Technical Institute in Schnecksville, Executive Director Dr. Thomas Rushton and Jan Brna, Director Postsecondary & Workforce Education, utilize a combination of job shadowing, internships for sophomores and juniors, and a cooperative education program for seniors to give students on-the-job training at local manufacturers. But the school hopes to add a formal pre-apprenticeship program to the mix in the near future.

“We recently applied for a PAsmart grant to help us establish a formal pre-apprenticeship program,” explained Brna. “Our school already has the curriculum in place, so we will develop a competency task list to align with an apprenticeship program, allowing students to receive credit for their learning and to enter a registered apprenticeship program with an advanced standing.” 

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry materials on pre-apprenticeship programs, they “…lay the foundation for future apprentices by preparing qualified candidates with academic knowledge and skills training tailored to specific jobs and industries.” 

“All of these training programs allow the students to achieve proficiency in developing their basic skill sets, safety protocols, and soft skills, which allow them to learn new skills on the job,” said Dr. Rushton. 

LCTI instructors sign off on each student who enters the co-op program to verify that they are ready to work. Co-op experiences have to be earned by the student based on their performance in school. Once at a manufacturer, they are assigned a mentor to oversee them on a daily basis and to guide their experience. 

Working with local manufacturers

An LCTI student receives training at B. Braun Medical thru the school’s co-op education program.

The overwhelming demand for skilled labor means that LCTI doesn’t have to go looking for manufacturers to participate in their training programs. “We get calls daily from all types of manufacturers in the Lehigh Valley asking if they can participate and letting us know they have openings,” Dr. Rushton explained. “They want first dibs on the talented workers LCTI is developing, because if the student has aptitude and potential, the manufacturer at which they do their co-op can then become their apprenticeship, and eventually hire them as an employee. Approximately 80-85 percent of co-op students stay with their manufacturer after graduation. It’s not unusual for our graduating seniors to have multiple job offers waiting for them.”

With so many willing manufacturers at their disposal, it also means that students can more or less have their pick of internship and co-op assignments based on interest and availability. Some of the local companies participating with LCTI include B. Braun Medical, Air Products, East Penn Manufacturing, and Mack Trucks. 

Representatives from many local manufacturers sit on LCTI’s Occupational Advisory Council that guides the educational programs taught at the school. This allows them to have a direct impact on what today’s students are learning so that LCTI is training them properly to enter the workforce upon graduation.

Lehigh Valley manufacturers also come to LCTI to meet with students and do presentations on their companies to create awareness and generate interest. “The manufacturers make an effort to connect with students, especially those who are developing skill sets that the manufacturer badly needs, like machining for instance,” explained Brna. 

Pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships also play an important role in reducing employee turnover since these programs help to manage the expectations of the student on the type of work they will be doing and the environment in which they will be doing it. They are immersed in the company’s environment while they hone their skills. They are also earning and learning at the same time since seniors in the co-op program are paid. 

Getting an advanced education

“Approximately 60-70 percent of our students go onto a post-secondary education,” said Brna. Articulation agreements with area institutions of higher education help to ensure that students in pre-apprenticeship programs earn college credit that they can use to further their education. Some LCTI students also have dual enrollment with Lehigh Carbon Community College, which shares a campus with LCTI. An example would be metalworking skills, which are dictated by the NIMS credentials and are national standards, so they need to be learned by all students in that field. Each credential can equal three credits at a local community college. 

“Since achieving certain skill sets is directly related to your apprenticeship level, which in return impacts your pay, with proper advance training a student can bypass certain levels and earn more sooner,” said Brna. 

Looking to the future of manufacturing careers

Photo taken at Lehigh Career and Technical Institute in North Whitehall Township, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Smith)

In the coming year LCTI expects to expand with a new welding lab and precision machining shop to help better educate its students.

“We’re just starting to stem the loss of the skilled trades people who have started retiring, more of which will be happening in the coming years, by training up the students who are now entering the workforce to replace them,” said Dr. Rushton. 

“We need to continue debunking the myth of what manufacturing careers are like today. Modern manufacturing is very different than the factories of the past. They are totally different facilities now and offer good career opportunities for today’s young people. Properly trained and experienced students can get jobs earning in the middle $30,000s at just 18 years of age. The more we can get that out to the students, parents, counselors, and educators the better.”