Pandemic pauses Michigan students pursuing trade careers
Adriana Sokalski was set to graduate in May from the electrical program at Kirkland Community College in Grayling, but when the pandemic halted necessary hands-on classes, her life was put on hold.
“It definitely puts me back. I live in a rural area as it is, it’s kind of hard to find a job up here,” Sokalski said. “In order to try to finish my stuff and have the credentials to apply for a job, it’s very hard.”
Sokalski is among the Michigan college students whose futures are being delayed. For trade and skills careers, online learning efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 are difficult and can fall short as hands-on learning paused and graduations are postponed.
It all comes at a time when the state has tried several approaches to entice students into trade careers as gaps in the workforce are expected through 2026.
Sokalski was doing electrical work with an apprenticeship license downstate, but was laid off, as were many Michigan residents. Filings for unemployment have reached 2.2 million during the pandemic.
On top of regular college student stresses, Sokalski said, the log home that her parents built burned down before the pandemic. As a student in rural northern Michigan, connecting to the internet to do her classwork became another hurdle.
A study done through the Quello Center at Michigan State University found that only 53% of students in rural areas have high-speed internet access, compared to 77% of students in suburbs. The study found that lack of internet access impacts test scores, likelihood to pursue higher education and even what career a students may choose.
“We’ve been bouncing from house to house during all this,” Sokalski said. “Some places don’t have internet or anything like that so I was trying to do my online homework and it was very hard.”
To add insult to injury, Sokalski said she was in a cast for a broken ankle during near weekly moves from residence to residence.
“It definitely seemed like it was one thing after another,” she said.
Though community colleges were set up well to move online — one-third of community college students take at least one online class — some programs have been impossible to operate, Mike Hansen, Michigan Community College Association president told the Legislature’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education and Community Colleges at a recent meeting.
Classes needed for trade professions such as labs, welding and mechanics were suspended and students who were set to graduate cannot. It’s important to find ways to hold in-person classes because admissions are expected to increase in fall, Hansen said.
“If this recession and these unemployment rates are like past recessions, we know that enrollments at a community college will increase as people who have lost their jobs and have been separated because of the pandemic from their employment, they will be returning to the community college for new skills,” Hansen said.
For the past 20 years there’s been a shortage of skilled workers, as the rate of those retiring from those careers exceeded those going into them, said Doug Bush, president of the Michigan Association for Career and Technical Education.
The stigma surrounding trade schools and a statewide culture of college being the only post-grad option greatly impacted the number of students pursuing skilled trade training, Bush said.
“There was such a push for such a long time in the state of Michigan on college for all,” Bush said. “That was a very good thing in terms of supporting people’s path to post-secondary training. However, it basically left out the conversation about other options, skilled trade options.”
In recent years, there’s been a resurgence of people pursuing technical careers, Bush said, although gaps in the workforce remain.
“We’ve come a long way in the last five to 10 years. We’re finally getting to a place where the stigma of skilled trades is diminishing and people are seeing that there are viable career options,” Bush said.
Michigan has 15 public universities, 25 independent colleges and universities and 28 public community colleges, all of which have ceased in-person classes and taken economic hits amid the pandemic.
Independent colleges and universities are seeing a large economic hit, said Robert LeFerve, president of the Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities at the Legislature’s meeting. Private institutions already have refunded $30 million to students for room and board in the fall.
Enrollment is expected to decline and many students in the economic bracket affording them grants are not enrolling, LeFerve said. If only 150 students do not reenroll at each institution, revenue losses will total $90 million.
One professor has found a creative way to continue trade profession learning while social distancing. Doug Wiersma, an electrical construction professor at Grand Rapids Community College created “lab in a bag”.
To ensure his students could stay on track to graduate, Wiersma sanitized bags with the necessary materials for class and put them on the sidewalk outside his house.
“Somehow it got around to the administration and I was a little worried at the time I might get in a little trouble,” Wiersma said. “But I was like, ‘I’m gonna do this for the better good of the students.’”
He didn’t get in trouble, he supplemented the lab with online instruction and said seven students were able to finish the last six weeks of their 18 week program online.
In addition to providing his students the materials they needed, Wiersma said he put fruits and vegetables in the bags to combat food insecurity among the students.
“There were a lot of insecurities, whether it was food or just tons of psychological insecurities and things that we’re all dealing with,” Wiersma said. “So, you know, the food is kind of a human gesture. It wasn’t a big deal really.”