How Trade Schools Are Weathering COVID-19

How Trade Schools Are Weathering COVID-19
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on March 18, 2021

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Community colleges were expecting student numbers to balloon in 2020. In past recessions, community colleges saw big boosts in enrollment due to professionals returning to school to retrain and high school grads opting to start college locally. Yet community college enrollment dropped nearly 10% this past fall compared to fall 2019.

Community college and trade school students are more likely to be low-income, Black, and brown — members of the communities most impacted by COVID-19 and its economic fallout.

In addition to health concerns and financial hardship, the lack of available hands-on training could deter students from enrolling in vocational programs at both community colleges and trade schools. When campuses shut down, lectures and quizzes moved online — but hands-on instruction came to a halt.

Trade Schools and the Shift to Remote Learning

The transition online has been hard on education as a whole. For career and technical education (CTE), which encompasses trade education and certificate programs in fields like health, technology, and administration, the transition was especially difficult.

CTE focuses heavily on hands-on learning. Practical instruction, internships, and apprenticeships help CTE students be career-ready at graduation. Now, many programs have adopted a hybrid approach, teaching theory-focused classes remotely but saving practical training for when campuses reopen.

Now, many programs have adopted a hybrid approach, teaching theory-focused classes remotely but saving practical training for when campuses reopen.

But learning theory alone can only take students so far. At the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, one of the nation's top trade schools, students are at a standstill. They can't graduate without learning how to service planes, and they can't get back to campus and take their tests until the Federal Aviation Administration gives its approval.

The pipeline issues currently gripping CTE could wind up increasing demand for vocational skills. Past declines in vocational education created a shortage of skilled workers, which in turn fueled the steady growth of CTE.

College enrollment in the U.S. swelled from about 13 million students at the turn of this century to nearly 17 million in 2016. Meanwhile, trade school enrollment grew at an even quicker pace, from under 10 million in 1999 to 16 million in 2014.

The Struggle to Get Hands-On Experience Online

Some vocational training can be accomplished online, such as graphic design, IT support, and coding. But most vocations rely on tools, workshops, and labs. Professional-grade equipment can't be sent home like laptops and hot spots can. And online courses can't easily replicate the physical space, hands-on practice, and in-person demonstrations needed to get students career-ready.

Professional-grade equipment can’t be sent home like laptops and hot spots can.

CTE educators are working around the challenges of remote learning with creative solo assignments and adapted coursework. Still, a January survey by the Association for Career and Technical Education found that 74% of teachers and counselors said they were much less or a little less effective at providing hands-on learning this year.

A reduction in the quality of career training during school closures threatens to impact graduates' career readiness. The same survey found 58% of teachers felt less effective at helping their students get certified this year.

Vocations and Trades Hold Value During Recessions

Vocational training is perhaps the hardest form of education to accomplish this year. Paradoxically, vocational programs could offer their graduates the most value on the current job market. Two-year colleges and trade schools connect students with in-demand careers and, at this point, better immediate job prospects than four-year colleges.

The pandemic might have paused vocational training, but it could ultimately accelerate its growth.

New college grads are entering a job market that has only a small fraction of the internships and entry-level opportunities that existed pre-pandemic. Meanwhile, demand for electricians and IT support, plumbers, and phlebotomists remains high.

Skilled tradespeople have historically been able to weather recessions. The demand could even go up as community colleges and trade schools award fewer certificates — whether due to enrollment downturns, reduced class sizes, or the pausing of training and certification.

While negative perceptions of CTE persist, and most educational programs and policies continue to funnel students toward four-year colleges, vocational training appears to have turned a corner. Within the last decade, student interest around CTE surged alongside federal state funding. The pandemic might have paused vocational training, but it could ultimately accelerate its growth.


Feature Image: Hinterhaus Productions / Stone / Getty Images

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