RACHEL — When students attend Marion County Technical Center, their day starts by clocking in and receiving their new assignments.
That’s because many of the programs at the Technical Center operate as simulated workplaces, which give students real-world experience to learn hands-on.
“Our programs are a lot of hands-on,” said Jay Michael, principal of Marion County Technical Center. “It’s for those ones that maybe they need to get up and move around sometimes during the day and that’s what we offer. They have to do their classwork, there’s classes that they have to take, but the other part of it is they get the opportunity to do hands-on.”
February is Career Technical Education Month, which recognizes school programs that teach technical skills to prepare students for a career in a specific field. The Marion County Technical Center opened in 1979, and offers programs ranging from electrical wiring to nursing. Through these programs, students can transition to careers in their selected field more easily, or enter college programs with prior experience.
“The mission of any technical center is to prepare our students for the future,” Michael said. “We do it a little differently, with a lot of hands-on stuff, and these are careers that you can jump right into after graduation, or you can continue into college and further your degree in specialized areas.”
According to Michael, the Marion County Technical Center has about 350 students each year, and they come from all three of the county high schools. Most students don’t get involved until their junior year when they can apply to enter a program of their choice.
“There’s actually an application and they pick three choices in case they don’t get in their first one,” Michael said. “They prioritize what they would like, then there is an interview process. Unfortunately we can’t take every single kid.”
Most students enter the Technical Center without any experience in their field of interest, but just an interest in tinkering. Jeff Greenly, electrical wiring instructor at the school, said this is the case for most of the students he teaches.
“We do get some kids whose parents are electricians or construction workers, things like that and we get some kids who just like to tinker,” Greenly said. “This is the perfect place for them.”
Mike Opron, collision repair instructor at Marion County Technical Center, also said he takes students from the basics of auto repair to the point where they can do the real thing on their own vehicles.
“We start the beginning of their junior year learning the tools,” Opron said. “Then their second year, we’re pretty much out in the shop all the time.”
On Monday in Opron’s classroom, students worked on a truck brought in by one of the students that needed a few repairs. Some students used tools to perform repairs and maintenance, while others mixed paint to give the vehicle a new paint job. Opron stood by and observed, available to offer additional leadership and advice.
Greenly’s classroom operates in a similar way, as students practiced wiring techniques on a washer and dryer system. Michael said some students from the class were also working on rewiring the school’s old bell system, which is another example of the students gaining real world experience.
The instructors at the Technical Center, Michael said, almost always come to the classroom from working in the field. Aside from being a professional in their particular field, these instructors also have real-world connections that can help their students attain jobs after graduation.
“These teachers aren’t your typical teachers telling you how to do things — they did it,” Michael said. “That’s part of it, not just getting them to complete their programs, but they go a step further and try to create placements.”
Opron said he worked at Anthony Chevrolet in Fairmont for years before starting his teaching career at the Technical Center. He said he is able to help his students find jobs after graduating.
“There are a lot of jobs available in collision repair,” Opron said. “That’s what our job is, to find them jobs and take them to the next step... We’ve got tons of contacts out there.”
Greenly, too, said he helps students with more than just field work. He helps them prepare to get careers through classwork.
“There’s really no other way that a kid can be 18 years old and come out of school career-ready,” Greenly said. “Plus, we teach a lot of career skills; resume writing, interview skills.”
Alongside working in a simulated workplace, students at the Technical Center earn their other general education credits as well. Michael said most of the students at East Fairmont High and Fairmont Senior High take their classes during freshman and sophomore years before entering the Technical Center their junior year.
He also said the coronavirus pandemic has made teaching students at the Technical Center more difficult because they aren’t getting as much time in the lab to perform hands-on work.
“It’s very, very difficult,” Michael said. “Most of our classes are hands-on, so you’re trying to crunch everything in. For our seniors it’s really difficult because we’re not getting the lab time that we need to get... Our nursing students aren’t able to go do clinicals because they’re not allowed to go to those facilities. So it has been difficult for all of our programs.”
Michael said he attended North Marion High, but did not know about the offerings at the Technical Center until adulthood. He said more students give it a try because they might not only find a career field they enjoy, but they can learn life skills that will benefit them in the long run.
“More so than anything is the life skills,” Michael said. “I don’t know a lot of people that can work on their own cars. You take it to the dealership or mechanic, you’re paying $135 an hour later. You go through our program, you can do it all yourself.”