Tyler Owen looks around the unfinished classroom at Westside High School and feels relieved.
When school starts in August, the classroom space set aside for students to learn how to weld or find out more about construction will be doubled. That means more opportunities for students to learn, and potentially more workers for employers like Owen.
For the better part of the past decade, Owen, the president and CEO of Owen Industries, and others have lamented the loss of shop class in schools.
When he was in school, he said, students had plenty of opportunities to try out the trades. But that hasn’t been the case in recent years.
“We lost an entire generation of kids,” Owen said.
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A total of 30 donors, including Owen’s company, gave money to expand the space at Westside for students to learn about welding, construction, engineering, woodworking and more in the expanded Engineering and Technology Lab.
The private donations will cover $1.1 million in construction costs and $50,000 in new equipment, a district spokeswoman said.
Terry Hanna, development director at the Westside Foundation, said donors were enthusiastic about the project and hope that Westside can be a model for workforce development in high schools.
Westside never stopped providing some trade-focused classes, but the renovations will put a renewed emphasis on trades and give students more opportunities.
John Bombac, an engineering and technology teacher at the school, said the pendulum is swinging back to trades after years of intense focus on sending kids to four-year colleges.
Parents and students are realizing that there’s a way to get good-paying jobs that offer lots of opportunities without being saddled with the debt that often comes with a college degree, Bombac said.
And Westside isn’t alone. School districts across the metro area are expanding their options for students to explore careers in the trades.
This fall, 378 students at the two Council Bluffs Community School District high schools will participate in the TradeWorks Academy, a district spokeswoman said.
The academy allows the students to study mechanics; construction; fabrication; electrical work; plumbing; and heating, ventilation and air conditioning. They will receive certification, an associate degree or foundational skills for more advanced training.
Like Westside, the district used private dollars to renovate the space for the programs at both Bluffs high schools.
The Papillion-La Vista Community Schools and the Bellevue Public Schools included funds for additional space for trade-focused classrooms in bond issues.
For Papillion-La Vista, that will include adding classroom space at both of its high schools for STEM and the trades.
Bellevue’s school board is finalizing the purchase of a facility to expand career and technical education opportunities. Both of the district’s high schools would use the same facility.
The Elkhorn Public Schools will add a welding class at Elkhorn North High School starting in 2020 that will be open to all district students.
In addition to other offerings, starting next school year, students at the Ralston Public Schools will be guaranteed admission into the Carpenters Union Local 427 training program if they complete certain requirements.
The Omaha Public Schools already has a Career Center that allows students to choose from different career pathways.
Starting next school year, OPS will begin a career academies partnership with Metropolitan Community College that will allow juniors and seniors to take courses at Metro in trades not currently offered in OPS.
Exposure to different opportunities means more well-rounded students, said Tyler Foster, a Westside engineering and technology teacher.
“We hope that by the time they leave our program that they have developed the basic skills and the insight to be successful with whatever they might want to do,” he said.
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