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Closing the gap: Teacher shortages in career, technical fields contribute to labor deficit

Travis Oliver, industrial technology instructor at Crookston High School, is student teaching vocational agriculture at Fertile-Beltrami High School while he works on getting his bachelor's degree in Agricultural Education at University of Minnesota Crookston. photo by Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

Workers in career and technical fields are in short supply, and there are several reasons for it — not the least of which is the shortage of teachers who can ignite student interest in these fields in middle and high school, say those closest to the issue.

The need for teachers is “critical,” said Tom Leuthner, director of the Pine to Prairie Cooperative Center in Red Lake Falls, Minn. “Even our state legislature is looking at some alternatives and ways we can get qualified teachers back in the classroom. It’s not an easy process.”

Too often, young people who show an interest in teaching end up taking a different path, Leuthner said.

“These kids get into the universities and realize they’ll make a lot more money by working in construction management versus teaching construction, as one example,” he said. “Fewer and fewer people are going into education altogether.”

The shortage affects not only the trades and industry, but also “agricultural instructors, family and consumer science teachers and health occupations,” he said

As interest in teaching in technical fields declines, universities and colleges close programs that used to prepare students to teach in these fields, said Leuthner, citing Bemidji and Mankato state universities and the University of Minnesota as examples.

“It’s a matter of getting kids exposed (to technology), and when these programs close they don’t even know what’s out there, and you do lose them.”

“This trend has been going on for several years, but specifically in career and technical education, it’s tough,” he said.

Becoming a teacher

For Travis Oliver, an industrial technology instructor at Crookston High School, it was the other way around.

Oliver, 36, who has many years of experience in construction management, including work in the oil fields of western North Dakota, decided to go into teaching. He’s in his third year of teaching construction trades and woodworking at Crookston High School.

Oliver, who holds a bachelor’s degrees in business and construction management, said that “as a construction manager, working 70 to 80 hours a week was not conducive to having kids.” He and his fiance are raising three children, all younger than 8.

He also is earning a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education at the University of Minnesota-Crookston to fulfill requirements to become a licensed teacher. He plans to complete the degree this spring.

“I’m not a licensed teacher, but I have managed about 80 guys,” Oliver said. “I think I can manage 20 kids.”

At UMC, he knew three students who earned their bachelor’s degrees in agriculture education last year and found teaching jobs in their preferred locations, he said.

“We can’t graduate fast enough.”

Whitney Rupprecht, who earned her bachelor’s degree in agricultural education at UMC in 2013, is an agricultural education teacher at Fertile-Beltrami Public School in Fertile, Minn., where Oliver is student-teaching under her supervision as part of his UMC degree requirements.

Rupprecht received the job offer from Fertile, her first choice in teaching location, several months before graduating, she said. “That’s how short of ag teachers we are.”

Many schools in search of teachers in this subject area begin posting their jobs in November or December for the following school year, she said.

Vacancies arise because teachers retire or leave for another position — either in teaching, counseling, administration or, more often than not, industry, Rupprecht said.

Hands-on experience

As a teacher at Crookston High School, Oliver has taught classes that offer students hands-on experience. For example, by building a house each year.

In the first two years he taught the class, “I had to turn kids away, either because they didn’t meet prerequisites or because the class was full,” he said.

The best way to learn construction skills, he said, is by doing.

“It’s hard to gain experience without working in these fields,” he said. “You don’t know how to build a house unless you’ve built a house.”

Leuthner agrees.

“We’re a hands-on business,” he said. “The trend has been a lot, in higher education, toward online (learning). In skill development, that’s really tough to do.”

Part of his job at the Pine to Prairie Cooperative Center is to help school districts determine how best to spend federal money for, especially, the purchase of high-tech, state-of-the-art equipment.

Being exposed to this equipment and learning to use it gives students the skills they need to land jobs that are in demand in manufacturing and other areas, Leuthner said.

“Particularly with skills, you get that skill set by actually performing that work, not by reading a book,” he said. “In trades and industry, it’s very specific.”

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