Graduates of the Seneca Highlands Career and Technical Center in Port Allegany are helping to dispel the erroneous public perception of vocational-technical education, dating back to the 1990s and earlier, as being a dumping ground for students who were disciplinary problems and not successful in the traditional classrooms.

Times have changed.

The public now has a much higher regard of vocational education schools which, often at the behest of employers, are increasingly focused on recruiting students to pursue careers in the trades.

 Now, when a large number of students studying at four-year colleges do not graduate within six years, there is a skills gap. To close this gap, the nation’s career and technical schools, with their hands-on and engaging environment for learning, are actually quite effective in preparing students for much-needed jobs and additional education.

Experts trace vocational education’s popularity to various reasons, such as fewer years of formal training, less expensive than four-year colleges, high quality of training and secure employment opportunities.

Many of the current good-paying jobs require less than a bachelor’s degree. For example, experts predict that by 2020 almost two-thirds of all jobs will require some post-secondary education or training — often two years — beyond high school.

Four graduates of the Seneca Highlands CTC, Ashley Schoonover, Brody Himes, Troy Schroeder and Drew Teclaw, shared their stories with The Era.

Schoonover was a National Honor Society member in her junior and senior years at Otto-Eldred High School and spoke at graduation in 2016 after being named the CTC Mantle holder. She received numerous scholarships.

While at the CTC, she maintained a high grade point average and was inducted into the National Technical Society, which recognizes outstanding career and technical education students’ achievements.

“To be eligible for NTHS membership, students, in addition, to maintaining a 3.0 GPA in their home districts and achieve a 93 percent average — an ‘A’ here — must also exhibit good attendance and behavior and be recommended by a teacher,” CTC Director James Young said.

Schoonover also participated in the medical terminology competition of SkillsUSA during her senior year.

Michele Jack, health assistant instructor at the CTC, named Schoonover the top student in the afternoon health assistant class. Ashley also explained the health assistant curriculum to groups of prospective students who visited the CTC.

Moreover, she served as treasurer of the CTC Student Committee.

Despite her busy schedule, Schoonover has worked part-time as a certified nursing assistant for two years at the Bradford Ecumenical Home Inc., where she received a scholarship, according to Linda Howard, a BEHI administrator and part-time nursing instructor at the Olean campus of Jamestown Community College.

Schoonover is now enrolled in the pre-nursing curriculum at JCC and plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

She credits Jack for her success in college saying, “I was very well prepared for my major at JCC.”

Himes, a 2015 graduate of the CTC’s metalworking occupations course of study and Smethport Area High School, is employed on the night shift at the Lewis Run plant of the Keystone Powdered Metal Company.

He is a lathe operator, working in the computer numerical control setup department.

“We make transmission parts for GM and Ford,” he said. “I work on various lathes for different parts, and I may not use the same lathe every night. I also check the parts to ensure they are machined to the proper specifications.”

He also performs some machine repairs.

Himes studied at the CTC during his junior and senior grades, earning membership in the National Technical Society both years. In his senior year, he finished third in the precision machinery competition of SkillsUSA, an organization that has provided leadership and training skills to students and teachers in career and technical education.

He rates his CTC education as “excellent,” saying, “I really like my job and wouldn’t be where I am without that training. I have a good job. I chose the right field.”

 Schumer: Boost communication after Penn Station stampede

Teclaw is rounding out almost three years at GKN Sinter Metals in Emporium, a major manufacturer of precision car parts. He works the night shift. As an operator of the production line turning out connecting rods for autos, he said part of his job includes quality control.

“I love my job,” he said.

He graduated in the CTC automotive curriculum and Port Allegany High School in 2013.

While he didn’t compete in SkillsUSA events, Teclaw did earn a certification in his field. To receive certificates, students voluntarily pursue industry-recognized certificates that can be earned through high school and post-secondary programs in which independent judges evaluate the students’ abilities, knowledge and interpret information.

Speaking about his CTC classes, Teclaw remembers when the class tore apart an engine in his first year.

Schroeder, a Coudersport High School graduate, studied from 2014-16 at the CTC, where he was in the first class for the new welding program, while he also took classes in metalworking. “In our senior year, we learned to operate mills and lathes in metalworking,” he said.

Last year, Schroeder was a backup in the welding program in SkillsUSA. Earning the title as “Student of the Year” at the CTC, he received a Miller welding machine. Schroeder was also inducted into the National Technical Honor Society.

Now employed as a laborer at Ardagh, Port Allegany’s remaining glass plant, he hopes to use his welding certification and experience for promotion.

“Students who leave here with certificates have a job after graduation,” Young said.