As usual, “Around Town” doesn’t disappoint — the Saturday, Jan. 6 edition highlighting the divide between Lt. Gov. Cagle and state representatives Wilkerson and Anulewicz, along with Sen. Rhett may at first seem like politics as usual, but for those of us in vocational education and craft work, its welcome news. For far too long, alternatives to college have been at best marginalized, often ignored and always misunderstood. It’s exciting as both major parties 2018 gubernatorial candidates (Cagle and Stacey Evans) have made technical and vocational education a centerpiece of their campaigns.

But what makes a successful vocational program, who are the students, why do they choose to work in the trades and where do these programs thrive? I happen to think Cobb County has a great model to build upon — one of our states best high school construction programs is at Kennesaw Mountain High School led by Jeremy Whitaker. What makes Mr. Whitaker’s class stand out? Well, for starters it’s his efforts to brand it, at KMHS they “redefine blue collar” and shop is a four-letter word. It’s not surprising to me that a magnet school would be a great incubator for changing perceptions about trade programs. These kids can attend a four-year college but are doing the math (along with occasionally skeptical parents) and recognizing that the pathway to a stable middle-class lifestyle may very well be wearing a hard hat or a pair of safety glasses and work boots.

Another common misconception is that facilities equal success. Drive to Kennesaw and look at the beautiful ITT campus which despite $8 billion in government loans has a “bankruptcy sale” sign in front of it. Yes, there are “lazy rivers” in our industry, too.

Great vocational programs can’t be “too big to fail” and must focus on job training not administrative bloat. Operating budgets must commit to instructors as they will shape the student experience, not adding nonessential headcount. Schools need to fill jobs, not create them. Speaking of those instructors considering how much money some of these positions pay in the field, competitive wages and benefits are essential. Without strong teacher retention program quality will suffer.

There is no substitution for hands-on experience and while classroom knowledge is important, too, it cannot replicate doing. As David Cobb, who founded the Gulf States Shipbuilders Consortium once told me regarding hiring welders “the more you burn, the more you learn and the more you learn, the more you earn.” We would be wise to heed the advice of a man whose manufacturing career began in 1965.

Culture is important and along with quality hiring the primary factors in most organization’s success. But when it comes to student experience in career education, the most important issue is graduate outcome and specifically industry partnerships. Kids want to know (and parents, too) that there are employers who will hire them upon completion. The difference between greatness and mediocrity in our industry is those relationships. They do not happen overnight, and you must nourish them. But when a school has them, the sky is the limit.

Recently, I filmed a video with four graduates, including two from Cobb County. They worked on a range of projects including SunTrust Park, Dulles Airport and on Hollywood blockbusters like Fast and Furious. Their backgrounds highlight what leaders like Mr. Whitaker understand- two attended college for Business Administration and Engineering, one served in the Navy and finally the other went to a STEM High School. And yes, two of them are women.

Whether it’s building giants like Mercedes-Benz Stadium or working in advanced manufacturing, the faces of vocational education have changed and it’s time our politicians and educational leadership recognizes that. We welcome their interest in changing lives, disrupting postsecondary education and growing our economy.

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Ryan Blythe is the founder of

Georgia Trade School in Acworth.

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