INDIANAPOLIS — Dressed in a black work jumpsuit, Greenfield-Central senior Jennifer Bass could pass for any professional hair stylist.
When she dons her cap and gown this spring and hears about reaching for the stars, Bass will already be on her way.
“I like the idea that after I graduate I’ll have a high school degree, and I’ll also have my certification in cosmetology,” she said. “I can do hair styling and work my way through college.”
Bass is one of 79 Hancock County students who make the daily drive to vocational school at Walker Career Center on the east side of Indianapolis to prepare for a career.
As Gov. Mike Pence and state legislators discuss ways to focus more on vocational education and matching Hoosiers with local jobs, educators hope opportunities for students will open up even more.
In his State of the State address Jan. 22, Pence said nearly 1 million Hoosiers lack the skills they need to succeed in today’s marketplace. He vowed to make a change.
“The time has come to make career, technical and vocational education a priority in every high school in Indiana,” he said.
Pence proposes creating regional councils to work with businesses and educators across the state to develop demand-driven curricula to bring high-paying options to more Hoosiers now in high school. This week, the Indiana House took a step in that direction, unanimously approving a bill establishing the councils.
For most Hancock County students, Walker Career Center on Warren Central High School’s campus is the place to go for vocational education. Students from Greenfield-Central, Mt. Vernon and New Palestine high schools can participate in 23 career and technical programs there. Thirty-five students from Eastern Hancock have taken advantage of the same opportunities at the New Castle Area Career Program.
The classes can lead to industry certification or college dual credit, which in most cases is free to the students.
New Palestine High School senior Adam Bass describes the vocational and technical experience at Walker Career Center as the best opportunity for him as opposed to a traditional high school education.
“I’m learning more hands-on skills,” Bass said. “I’m learning how to diagnose and find out what is wrong with a car.”
He’s one of six New Palestine students taking an auto service technology class from instructor Dale Bupp.
“If they can understand what they’re learning here, they can take it to the next level at a technical college and have a step up,” Bupp said.
“This doesn’t feel like school at all,” NPHS senior Wes Bremer said. “It almost feels like a real job.”
A formal four-year college degree isn’t the path for all students, said Cindy Frey, assistant director of Walker Career Center.
Students who take vocational and technical classes can apply credits toward certificates or degrees in college.
“The most important thing we tell young people is, ‘Your education, your training cannot end in high school anymore,’” Frey said.
She said the career programs at Walker are the most expensive to run in the Warren school district. A piece of equipment for an engineering program, for example, was $38,000 this year.
It’s why Frey was thrilled to hear Pence and state lawmakers talk about putting more funding into vocational education.
“We have to evolve programs as we respond to the local economy,” Frey said. “An increase in funding would be huge for us because it would allow us to update programs much more quickly.”
Friday, House Republicans unfolded their ideas for the state’s budget bill. Boosts to K-12 funding are planned as well as more money and focus on vocational education.
“The budget has definitely singled out education to be a priority,” said Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, adding that once the Senate and governor weigh in, plans could change.
The House Republican proposal includes $36 million to train and educate Hoosier workers, which would double state’s current spending. Cherry said that could mean funding boosts for programs for high school students like Walker’s, in addition to funds for businesses to send their employees to community colleges.
Also this week, the House unanimously passed a bill that creates a council to compare available Hoosier jobs with educational programs in the state. Written by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, in conjunction with the governor, the measure is also set to receive funding for extensive research.
“Collectively, this group is to bring together a strategic plan by next year on how we are going to address this skills gap that exists and the 8 percent unemployment that we have, despite having one of the best job creation atmospheres in the nation,” Bosma said.
The multi-year focus will affect not only vocational education, Bosma said, but also try to solve why college-educated Hoosiers leave the state for careers elsewhere.
“Everyone’s acknowledged this is one of our toughest jobs this year, to address the workforce development issues that we have,” Bosma explained. “It’s a bipartisan concern. Republicans and Democrats are both leaders on this bill.”
Cherry said a concentrated look into the state’s vocational education opportunities for high school students is long overdue.
“This is what the business community is telling us,” Cherry said. “We have openings, but we can’t fill them.”
Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, said anything state lawmakers can do that will give students a leg up in careers makes sense.
“I think most of the talk we hear from economists is related to having an educated workforce to fill the positions we have,” Crider said. “One of the problems we’ve seen and they’ve identified is there may be jobs available but they don’t have a workforce to fill those jobs.”
Local school boards have discussed vocational education in recent years as well, as many are recognizing that not every student will attend a traditional four-year college.
Steve Menser, Greenfield-Central’s newest school board member, stands firmly behind more funding for vocational education. He works for the software development company RCR Technology and knows firsthand that companies need highly trained workers.
“We just came out of a meeting talking about that exact thing,” he said. “I applaud Pence for his focus on that.”
Frey said Walker Career Center will serve nearly 3,800 students per year, giving them multiple career tracks. However, she said the number of Hancock County students decreased this year due to the high cost of transportation to and from the Warren Township campus.
G-C Principal Steve Bryant knows the importance of the career center and getting students there.
“The career center certainly can offer programs we cannot,” he said. “After high school, many are employed in their chosen career while taking college course work related or not related to their career.”
Pence says vocational courses can launch entrepreneurs, give kids a reason to finish high school and create a well-qualified workforce that will encourage businesses to build here and grow here.
Mt. Vernon High School senior Brianna Robinson hopes to fulfill her own vision. She opted for classes at Walker because she was torn between two professional fields.
“I’m stuck between cosmetology and nursing,” she said.
After the classes at Walker, she’ll be certified as a cosmetologist and can move forward with getting a license in the field.
“That way I can go to nursing school in August and be a cosmetologist at the same time and make some money for school,” she said. “Plus it gives me a fall-back plan.”
That is something she would not have had if it were not for vocational opportunities.