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Repairing the pipeline for WY rural career, technical educators

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Wednesday, April 24, 2024   

By Lane Wendell Fischer for the Shasta Scout via The Daily Yonder.
Broadcast version by Suzanne Potter for California News Service for the Public News Service/Daily Yonder Collaboration

Hiring and maintaining a qualified educator workforce is often a primary concern for rural schools across the country, requiring local education leaders to create innovative solutions.

The University of Wyoming’s College of Education has recently partnered with local community colleges across the state to repair a pipeline for future Career and Technical Education (CTE) teachers at high schools and community colleges. 

CTE programs offer students an array of skills-based learning opportunities for many high-demand industries ranging from construction, to nursing, to marketing.

For decades, Wyoming has relied on traditional methods to fill out its CTE teacher workforce. After completing a two-year associate’s degree at their community college, students could either enter the trades or take another two years of teacher training. 

“It was very much a fork in the road,” said Rob Hill, a CTE consultant for the University of Wyoming and president of SkillsUSA Wyoming. Hill became a Wyoming CTE teacher through this traditional path.

“You had to take life off and go to school,” Hill said. “That limited a lot of people, especially students with families, jobs, and homes.”

As it turned out, most students never completed the final two years of teacher training and just entered the trades after the first two years at their community college, Hill said in an interview with the Daily Yonder.

This outdated pipeline has contributed to a shortage of both CTE teachers and skilled workers in the state.

According to a 2023 report from the Wyoming Professional Teaching Standards Board, the median age of CTE teachers in Wyoming schools is 52, and national numbers are similar. Compare this to the average age of all teachers in the U.S., which is just over 42. 

On average, a state employee in Wyoming retires at 62. This means that in the next 7 to 10 years, Wyoming could lose close to half of its CTE workforce to retirement.

“We’ve seen a number of things that have impacted us and that rural part is very real,” Hill said.

In rural communities, a CTE program might only consist of one or two teachers. When that school loses a teacher, the whole program is at risk until a qualified replacement is found. 

During a recent tour of Wyoming’s school districts, Jenna Shim, PhD and interim dean of the College of Education, learned that some high school CTE programs are closing down because they couldn’t find replacements.

“One CTE teacher shared with me that he has a specialty in welding, but he has to teach culinary arts,” Shim told the Daily Yonder. “I could see welding and construction, but welding and culinary arts seem like a far stretch.”

And it can be difficult to attract new talent to small schools and communities. 

“We tend to do best with people that are invested in that community previously and become teachers, as opposed to bringing in teachers into small communities,” Hill said.

The CTE Domino Effect in Rural Communities

Adding to the difficulty of attracting new teachers is a domino effect caused by current teacher shortages, Shim and Hill said.

A shortage of educators leads to a shortage of high school CTE programs, which leads to a shortage of students pursuing CTE in the state, followed by a shortage of tradespeople in the state, and a shortage of essential services, which, in turn, leads to less attractive communities.

On top of educational advancement for students, repairing CTE teacher pipelines through state and local partnerships helps assemble the next generation of rural water experts, plumbers, electricians, technicians, mechanics, and more, Hill said.

“It has a trickle-down effect into the stability of the community,” Shim said.

And in rural communities, small fluctuations in population, programs, and services can be especially catastrophic — or especially beneficial. 

“It doesn’t seem like a big deal if you don’t have one teacher,” Hill said. “But that one teacher in a town of 2000 people that teaches welding, where you have a huge welding industry, that has an extremely large impact.”

The broken pipeline has also raised economic concerns. “Without a sufficient number of teachers, it’s hard to prepare a sufficient workforce,” Shim said.

Two key industries in Wyoming are energy and tourism. Both rely heavily on skilled workers. And both are susceptible to booms and busts that give local communities economic whiplash.

“Over the last decade especially, there’s been a real desire to diversify our workforce,” Hill said. “And that means a different generation of career and technical education, like manufacturing, cybersecurity, and data analysis.”

Repairing the Pipeline

The biggest problem in the previous CTE teacher pipeline was continuity, Hill said. The pathway to teacher certification in rural communities must be both attractive and achievable.

This spring, the College of Education piloted a new course that aims to do both by exposing community college students to CTE teaching before they complete their associate’s degree and decide between trades work or teaching. 

“Creating a more seamless pathway is a real goal here,” Hill explained. 

The bridge course will be offered each semester in partnership with all eight community colleges in the state and is inherently low stakes. The course credits can be applied toward an associate’s degree at the community college, toward their teaching degree at the university, or toward any other bachelor’s degree they pursue.

In the course, students get a taste of what a career in CTE teaching is like. Coordinated by Hill, the course is one dose online learning and one dose on-site learning. Hill leads the online classroom, where students learn about different national and statewide topics. “But students will learn about how it’s implemented locally,” Hill said. 

Each community college has a community college professional and a school district professional that serve as a mentor and safety net for local students, introducing them to CTE leaders at both levels. 

One area of misconception is how much CTE teachers are paid, Shim said.

“I think wages scare them most,” Hill said. “But in Wyoming, our hourly wage is higher than many of the trades folks. We have pensions. We have healthcare. It’s a lot more competitive than folks think it is.”

The organization of the course is a masterclass in rural ingenuity. By using technology, the course eliminates long distance travel to the university campus in Laramie on the southern border of the state. It allows students to remain in their local communities, while still being connected to the state’s CTE teacher network.

“We knew we had a statewide problem and we needed to create a statewide solution, or in this case, a local solution for a statewide problem,” Hill said. “This is about connecting people in Wyoming. Because we have these vast distances between us, we have to have a way to connect people.”

Twenty-two students are currently enrolled in the pilot course. Half of the inaugural cohort are community college students. The other half includes veterans, community college instructors, K-12 instructors, and paraprofessionals who are exploring their future career options.

The course has garnered support from state legislators, the university, the colleges, local high schools, local business, and from the students themselves. 

Each of the enrolled students is taking the course tuition-free, thanks to scholarships from local businesses and private donors.

“Word is getting out,” Shim said. “I think that’s a testimony for how important this work is.”

Strong CTE programs lead to strong communities, Shim and Hill said. A lot of high school CTE programs are embedded into community culture. Organizations like FFA provide opportunities for social gathering and community service, for example. 

“We’ve come up with a mutually beneficial solution and this takes a partnership and teamwork,” Hill said. “No significant advances take place without a group of us working together in a mutually beneficial system.”

Lane Wendell Fischer wrote this article for the Shasta Scout via The Daily Yonder.

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