Bath Tech students explore their new workspace upon moving into their new school in February 2021. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

Bath Tech, a career and technical education center within Morse High School, has seen a steady increase in enrollment as the stigma around vocational education and the skilled trades dissolves.

In 2018, 154 students were enrolled in one of Bath Tech’s programs. The following year, the center’s enrollment rose to 209, then to 223 students in 2020, according to Bath Tech Director Julie Kenny. This year, Bath Tech has 273 enrolled students.

Bath Tech offers nine Career and Technical Education courses to students enrolled at Morse High School, Boothbay Region High School, Lincoln Academy and Wiscasset Middle High School. The school’s offerings include welding, electric, culinary arts and early childhood education, among others.

Kenny said she believes the stigma that students who choose vocational education don’t continue on to attend college or aren’t smart enough to follow a traditional academic path is diminishing. That fading prejudice helps open students’ minds to consider career and technical education.

“I think the connection with community college and career and technical education has made people more aware of the different pathways someone can take after completing a career and technical education program,” Kenny said.

She said guidance counselors are shifting focus away from college as the endgame, and toward discovering a student’s career goals, and then charting the best path forward.

“That helps parents see that their student can still go to college if they want to be an electrician,” said Kenny. “They can still attend a four-year university if they want to do one of the trades. It’s just a different way to get there.”

Bath Tech health sciences students Sophia Barber and Lexie Hall.

Historically less-popular programs are gaining new attention from students, Kenny said.

“For years, automotive and health science were our top programs that filled up, but now the trend we’re seeing is welding and electrical are usually first to fill up,” said Kenny. “This year, we saw a huge increase in early childhood education, graphic design and engineering.”

In the old school building, the technical center was next to Morse High School rather than within it. At the new Bath Tech, English classrooms and biology labs share a hallway with automotive and electric workspaces.

“Where Bath Tech used to stand on the outskirts of the Morse building, our programs are now intertwined with the Morse community, offering staff the opportunity to work together and collaborate to educate our students,” Kenny said during the new school’s ribbon-cutting ceremony last week. “The increased visibility of our programs has made a clear impact on students, as we saw a 25% increase in enrollment in just one year with 41% of the Morse 11th and 12th graders currently attending Bath Tech programs.”

 

In neighboring Brunswick, Region 10 Technical High School had 263 students enrolled in 2019 and 261 students in 2020. This year, Region 10’s enrollment jumped to 302 students, according to Superintendent and Director Paul Perzanoski.

Student enrollment at Region 10 Technical High School in Brunswick since 2018.

Region 10 is a technical education high school that opens enrollment to Mount Ararat, Brunswick High School, Freeport High School, and Harpswell Coastal Academy students. The school offers 15 programs including metal fabrication and welding, certified nursing assistant and auto collision and repair.

Like Kenny, Perzanoski said he has seen the stigma around the skilled trades fade, but added he believes the COVID-19 pandemic “increased interest and credibility in the trades” as well.

“People saw that in many of the technical jobs, people were still working through the pandemic rather than being laid off or having their workplace interrupted,” said Perzanoski. “Construction has been booming and it’s hard now to find a plumber or electrician.”

Perzanoski said students who chose to learn a skilled trade often end up more financially sound than their classmates that enroll in a four-year university.

“Kids that are going to college are graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt but the kids that go into the workforce or trade school have little to no debt and they’re financially solid at a young age,” said Perzanoski.

While Bath Tech and Region 10 continue welcoming more students, the country’s vocational student numbers have dropped recently.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, 8.8 million students were enrolled in a career and technical secondary education center in the 2017-2018 academic year. The following year, that number rose slightly to 8.9 million.

Bath Tech culinary arts student D’Nisha Dawkins. Photo courtesy of Julie Kenny.

In the 2019-2020 school year, however, secondary vocational education enrollment in the U.S. dropped to 7.5 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Kenny said she isn’t concerned about enrollment dropping in Maine.

“Right now, we’re at a place where the workforce is so important at all levels and a lot of the jobs have equalized in respect,” Kenny said.

“I think people are investing in trying to build the workforce we need and knowing we need to focus on our high school students to see a change,” she said. “We certainly have students who are very excited to go right to work in a career right out of high school.”


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