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Skilled trade programs are booming after college enrollment dropped in the pandemic


More than a million students held off from going to college in this pandemic, but there are some bright spots happening at community colleges. Some programs in skilled trades like construction, HVAC and automotive repair are seeing an uptick in enrollment. In some places, it's as high as 40% more.


NADWORNY: In Waco, Texas, at Texas State Technical College, groups of students in a framing class are building sheds in a warehouse-like classroom.

LISA ALENIZ: We're in the stage of putting our ridge board on and putting our rafters up so that way, we can have a roof.

NADWORNY: Student Lisa Aleniz and her team are surrounding the structure, some cutting new wood, others up on ladders. An instructor notices something isn't right.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR #1: Go to the other side. See what you got on the other side.

NADWORNY: They've made a measurement error. They'll need to fix it to proceed.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR #1: Your plywood's not cut out enough. You've got to cut that plywood out more.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR #2: Yeah, it's got to be out a little bit more.

ALENIZ: There's all those different, like, components that fall into place. And it's confusing to learn, like, everything at first. But it's definitely easier as you're seeing it, and you're doing hands-on - like, that helps so much more.

NADWORNY: This hands-on element - that's why Lisa is in this program instead of doing just online classes. She's one of the few women in the program. She grew up around job sites with her dad and his sandblasting business and helping him put up drywall on various projects.

ALENIZ: There is so much work, like, in the trades. And, like, I don't want to be out on a job site doing all the labor work. Like, I want to be running it. But I have to learn the basics to it first before I can do that.

TONY CHAFIN: The demand - the demand is huge.

NADWORNY: Tony Chafin leads the construction program here in Waco.

CHAFIN: We have contractors calling us weekly - do you have anybody that can work? Do you have somebody that can fog a mirror? (Laughter) I mean, they just want people.

NADWORNY: The folks currently working in construction are also aging out. Chafin points to building inspectors as an example.

CHAFIN: The average building inspector is about 58 years old, so they're leaving faster than they're coming in.

NADWORNY: As students rethink the value of college, there's a major opportunity in two-year degrees and certificates in skilled trades. The jobs we'll need in the next 10 years - many of them don't need a bachelor's degree. Some may even make six figures. And a growing number of people without a bachelor's degree are now out-earning those with one.

We're at Northern Virginia Community College in their automotive program. We are standing outside a bay. It is filled with cars. And there are students here who are practicing skills on the cars. They're testing out brakes. They're checking to make sure the tires are weighted correctly. They're learning how to repair cars.

SANDY GARRETT: And we'll get the needle on zero. It's kind of tricky.

NADWORNY: Here on one of the campuses outside Washington, D.C., the pandemic has turbo-charged enrollment in this program. Students have migrated from the hospitality industry to NOVA's car repair program.

GARRETT: So if I lift up, we're on 10. Push down - we're on zero. So we set it up on zero, and then we pull it as far as it'll move. And that's our total amount of end play.

NADWORNY: Instructor Sandy Garrett is explaining how to check a torque converter. That's the part of an automatic car that functions like a clutch would in a manual car, helping switch gears.

GARRETT: If we're within spec, that means the torque converter's OK. If we're outside of that number, we have too much end play - then that means the torque converter's faulty, and we'll have to replace it.

NADWORNY: Watching that demonstration is Muizz Ahmed. He's a second-year student here who got hooked on fixing cars in high school.

MUIZZ AHMED: There's a special feeling you get after you get a car running that - it's like, you know, I did this, right? And nobody else did it. I did it with my hands.

NADWORNY: But he says watching YouTube videos only goes so far. He felt he needed a degree.

AHMED: Working on all of these newer cars, you realize, without the proper training, I won't be able to understand how these systems work. And without knowing how these systems work, I won't be able to fix it.

NADWORNY: And the job security, knowing he's not going into debt and that he may come out with a pretty high salary - well, that feels good, too. And it's a calculation students across the country are starting to make. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.