Ask Eastland-Fairfield Career & Technical Schools Superintendent Bonnie Hopkins what’s changed in the 50 years the school has been in existence and she’ll offer a one-word answer: “Everything.”
The school served 500 students at its Groveport campus when it opened 1968. It has since added a Fairfield County campus and several satellite locations that now serve about 1,400 high school students from the Amanda-Clearcreek, Berne Union, Bexley, Bloom Carroll, Canal Winchester, Fairfield Union, Gahanna, Groveport Madison, Hamilton, Liberty Union-Thurston, New Albany, Pickerington, Reynoldsburg, Teays Valley, Walnut Township and Whitehall school districts.
The center also teaches about 4,500 adult students annually.
Career-technical education – once known as vocational training – is in vogue. The economy has bounced back after the Great Recession, but the worker supply has not met demand.
“It’s good news when we have 4 percent unemployment,” said Kelly Fuller, an Eastland-Fairfield administrator. “But it’s bad news when jobs are going unfilled.”
According to the computer-science advocacy website Code.org, the country has more than half a million computing jobs open. In August, the Associated General Contractors of America reported that 73 percent of Ohio construction companies said they were having trouble finding qualified workers, compared with 70 percent of construction companies nationally.
Vocational students now must meet the same academic requirements for graduation as their college-prep peers do, which wasn’t the case a couple of decades ago.
Eastland-Fairfield officials said the breadth of programs offered – teaching, performing arts, pre-engineering – probably would surprise parents.
Over the years, horticulture has morphed into landscape design for golf courses and patios.
Computer networking has, within a short time, been eclipsed by cybersecurity.
Drafting a design on paper has given way to computer-aided design, or CAD.
For 17-year-old Savannah Sweeney, making the 35- to 45-minute drive every day to Groveport from her home in Orient is a fair trade-off.
When she got the opportunity in 10th grade to leave Teays Valley High School to learn a skilled trade, Sweeney went for it.
“I looked at the list and asked, ‘What do I want to do that’s creative, that’s fun and that’s something I can’t do anywhere else?’ ” she said.
She wields a welder and plasma cutter to forge soft, fanciful artwork, such as welded metal roses, that she sells. She programmed a computerized “burn table” to carve out a butterfly and a hummingbird. She’s especially proud of a competition piece that took 52 hours to make: a metal castle with a drawbridge that can be raised and lowered and a dragon perched majestically on the highest turret.
Eastland-Fairfield is trying to do more to bridge the disconnect between education and the private sector.
The business community “knew to call,” Hopkins said. “What we’ve done better is they know they’re going to get a call back.”
Three years ago, Fuller was named a business-partnership coordinator at Eastland-Fairfield to make sure businesses and students were getting what they need.
“Literally every day, it’s a phone call, an email to say ‘We need people,’ ” Fuller said.
Business partners often end up donating equipment to help train the students and come in to serve as advisers.
The efforts are paying off: The placement rate for Eastland-Fairfield students within six months of graduation is 88.6 percent, according to 2016-17 state data.
Officials said the school also is an underused resource for adults who need to retrain for a new career. Eastland-Fairfield has been working with newly arrived immigrants to teach them a trade and work on their English at the same time.
Last fall, the school opened a 5,000-square-foot laboratory space dedicated to teaching adults to service heating and cooling units. One corner even replicates a typical home basement, with exposed beams and a bit of clutter.
Fifteen students are in the nine-month HVAC program, said instructor Walter Rhodes, and placement is very high.
“There’s more jobs than we have students,” he said.