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Building a future

Career tech gives students a competitive edge in the workforce

Tulsa Tech is the oldest career tech program in Oklahoma.

September Dawn Bottoms

As of writing, 44.7 million Americans owe roughly $1.5 trillion in student debt. A plurality of debtors are under 30 and could be on the hook for decades to come. Increasingly, student debt is being treated as a crisis on a national level. The student loan delinquency or default rate is 11.4 percent, meaning more than one in 10 people with student loans are more than 90 days delinquent on payments. This problem is greatest for those who take loans to attend school but are unable to finish, a situation more likely to affect students from low-income families.

Our culture’s focus on four-year college as the only reliable path to success is one factor driving the crisis. This narrative is reflected in the statistics: College enrollment increased 28 percent from 2000 to 2016, from roughly 13.2 million students to 16.9 million. Many of these students have graduated only to find their bachelor’s degree doesn’t prepare them to enter the workforce.

While college enrollment skyrocketed, enrollment in technical colleges decreased in the ‘80s and ‘90s, resulting in a dearth of trained professionals affecting the workforce to this day. Historically, trade schools and have been stigmatized by some as a less-glamorous alternative to college. But as the cost of attending a four-year university increases and the certainty of employment dwindles, some are looking to technical school as a more secure alternative, or as a way into a career that could pay for college later in life. 

Across the state, tech schools are pivoting away from the term “trade school” in favor of “career tech.” It helps emphasize their mission of preparing people for the workforce with a competitive advantage. 

Tulsa is home to the oldest career tech program in Oklahoma. Enrollment at Tulsa Tech is open to anyone inside their district, which covers Tulsa County. They boast an 82 percent completion rate, and 85 percent of graduates either gain employment in their field or continue their education elsewhere.

High school juniors can sign up for career tech at Tulsa Tech. Once they’ve committed to a program, they attend classes one half-day every week for the last two years of high school. Even better, high school students get free tuition.

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Tulsa Tech’s Broken Arrow Campus is a sight to behold. One of six Tulsa Tech campuses, it spans 53 acres, featuring more than 360,000 square feet of educational space. That includes classrooms, labs, conference rooms, shops and an auditorium that seats hundreds. It’s also the educational home of nearly 3,500 students, from part-time adult learners to full-time secondary school students.

The high schoolers in Tulsa Tech’s Automotive Service Technician program are every bit as serious about their education as any four-year college student. They commute from neighborhoods all over Tulsa and come from a diverse range of backgrounds. 

Earnest Kellum grew up on a ranch and admired his uncle, a mechanic. He aspires to become a Master Mechanic, which requires seven different certifications and three years on the workforce. Eventually he would like to own his own shop.

His favorite thing about Tulsa Tech is the rigor of the coursework. Teachers take students through the anatomy of a car, system by system, over the course of two years. By the end, they know the vehicle inside and out.

“Not only do you put it together, tear it apart and guess at the problem,” Kellum says. “You understand what exactly is going on so you can diagnose the problem.”

Students are also able to work on a variety of makes and models through the generosity of local dealers. Tulsa Tech partners with a number of local manufacturers and companies, who donate their resources and collaborate with the school to suit their curriculum to industry demands. Bill Knight Ford and Fowler Auto Group recently donated two engines apiece, as part of a statewide effort to boost career tech programs across Oklahoma.

Kellum likes to work on Dodges. His father had a 1996 Dodge Ram 2500 that he stopped driving when diesel got too expensive. “It sat in the back field of our ranch for about 10 years and I pulled it out,” he says. “It took about six months and I put it all together. Thanks to [Tulsa Tech] teaching me, I knew everything to do.”

Kellum and Caleb Martin are right at home in Tulsa Tech’s automotive program. Martin knew from a young age that he wanted to work with cars.

“As a small child I always loved cars, pointing out Jeeps on the road, things like that,” Martin says. When it came time for him to think about his future, it was an easy decision to make.

“I was like, ‘Man, I want to get my hands dirty,’” he says. “Be able to fix cars, fix the problem, make it run again.”

Now he’s a year into his training. So far, he’s learned electronics, brakes, steering and suspension. Before he graduates, he will cover automatic and manual transmission, air conditioning and heating, and engine repair. He has aspirations to join the Army as a wheeled vehicle mechanic. After that he hopes to open his own shop.

Other students chose career tech due to circumstances beyond their control. Laura Tolentino plans to go to college, but her immigration status has forestalled that for now. So she chose career tech. Tolentino grew up helping her dad with his lawn service company. Quality time with her father often meant hunkering over a machine in need of repair, inspiring her to enroll in automotive studies. 

“I came as an immigrant. That would make college really difficult because I would need some other documents to receive that,” she says. Still, Tulsa Tech has provided a way forward for Tolentino. “Continually going to college would be one of my goals, but if I can’t, at least I got something out of here,” she says. Like Kellum and Martin, Tolentino wants to open her own shop, although she’s more interested in business administration than automotive repair.

Tolentino likes the environment at Tulsa Tech. She says she feels respected, despite being the only girl in her class. “Not only are they respectful, they are really helpful whenever I need something to be shown,” Tolentino says.

She isn’t the only one to benefit from a highly attentive teaching staff. Kellum says teachers make sure students know their material. “It’s not just, ‘Do this and get by,’” he says. “No, you’re going to actually learn and comprehend everything in there. Because they’re not just gonna let you get away with not knowing.”

Tulsa Tech offers dozens of courses across a wide variety of fields. Whether you’re a high school junior looking to enter the workforce with a competitive advantage, a graduate looking for something to supplement their bachelor’s, an adult wanting a career change or simply a lifelong learner, students like Tolentino, Kellum and Martin are proving that career tech is a viable and valuable alternative to a traditional four-year degree. 

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