American Graduate: Technical Schools Offer Solid Career Paths to High School Graduates

Mar 30, 2016

Our American Graduate series, What’s Next, is a look at how high school seniors figure out what to do with their lives. Yesterday we heard about how students are finding their way to college and careers through their guidance counselors.

But there’s one option that at least some counselors may be missing: technical training for careers that don’t require college. And lots of technical occupations have open positions that can be hard to fill. One example is firefighting.

We visited a high school in Englewood that focuses on job preparation to find out more.

Miami Valley Career Technology Center has a sprawling campus—it looks like a community college, but it’s all high school juniors and seniors. 17 year-old Dawson Richards is a senior in the school’s fire science program, the newest on campus.


He’s wanted to be a firefighter since before he can remember. It runs in the family. His stepdad, mother, and brother-in-law have all worked in the field.

 When Richards was younger, he used to stay up and wait for his stepdad’s firefighter pager to go off. Sometimes he’d let him tag-along on calls. That’s what made him want to volunteer at his local fire station when he got older.

Fire Science students at Miami Valley Career Technology Center pose after a training exercise.
Credit Nick Weldy

“The most exciting part was watching them stretch a line. Like a hose line, and go into a burning building,” said Richards. “I couldn’t imagine the adrenaline rush. Because I got an adrenaline rush when the tones went off and I got to go ride out on the fire truck...and then I just got to help, I didn’t even get to go in.”

Now, Richards is set to graduate this spring with all the certifications he needs to get a full time job.

Fire Departments in the Miami Valley need people like Richards. There’s been a huge jump in the number of firefighters retiring recently. In the Dayton Fire Department alone, 12 people retired in the past year. Demand for part-time work has also increased.

Bud Bergman, the Chief of the Englewood Fire Department, says the losses have hit them especially hard.

“We used to have a stack of 30 or 40 applicants waiting to be hired for years,” said Bergman. “Now when we get a new applicant, we try to process them right on through. We don’t even wait anymore because we’re just short.”

That’s why Miami Valley Career Technology Center started a fire-fighting program for high schoolers two years ago. Superintendent Nick Weldy says there were some concerns at first. Fire science training is expensive and can be dangerous.

“You look at a program like this and you think oh my god it’s going to cost so much money. Where are we going to find a fire truck and an ambulance, and how are we going to do a live burn on this campus?,” said Weldy. “Student safety is my number one priority. Is this safe for students? Because you have to remember they’re not adults yet. They’ll probably turn 18 during that senior year, but we want to make sure that everyone who comes to school that day comes home in better shape than they came.”

They looked at successful programs around the state and took note of their safety measures. They also talked to local fire departments and got them to donate their old gear.

When the fall came around, they had 25 students enrolled in the program and another 20 on the waitlist.  

There was a downside though. The fire science program replaced the masonry program at Miami Valley CTC. That profession is in even higher demand than firefighting, but they couldn’t get enough students to the fill program.

Weldy says it’s reflective of a larger problem with technical education.

“People see trades as a dirty job, labor intensive, it’s not skilled...everybody wants a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer in the family,” said Weldy.  “But research has shown for every engineer you need seven technicians or support people.”

Weldy says today’s technical education prepares students for college and solid careers -- and not just in fire science. They have programs in animal care, sports medicine, culinary arts, and even robotics.  And within 6 months of graduation, 92% of their students are in school or working in their field.


What's Next is a WYSO series produced in partnership with Think TV. It's part of the public media initiative American Graduate, which is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.