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Students at Durango High School explore career paths through vocational learning

Participants gain real-world experience while finding a passion

Durango High School sophomore Summer Bonnar skillfully guided a chunk of wood around a spinning band saw blade in carpentry class this winter, carefully working around her manicured nails.

“It’s really cool that we get to work on something that is going to be useful for a while,” said Bonnar, who was making new legs for her grandmother’s 8-foot-long table.

Bonnar is among the hundreds of students in the high school’s popular career and technical education program that is growing steadily and working to fill the workforce shortages in Southwest Colorado, said Brandon Thurston, assistant principal and director of the program. The program encompasses traditional technical education programs such as carpentry, agriculture and welding, and it includes more nontraditional classes such as early education, robotics, engineering, journalism and culinary arts. Next year, the high school will launch a series of classes in health care that could include classes in emergency medicine as it is developed.

Summer Bonnar, 16, crafts a dining room table leg using a band saw during a woodworking class at Durango High School.

“The purpose of so many of these (career and technical education) pathways is just to give kids an opportunity to pursue a passion they already have or give kids an opportunity to dabble in so many different things that they might find a passion they didn’t know existed,” said Durango High School Principal Jon Hoerl.

Giving students the opportunity to explore different career paths and have real-world experiences before college can help them decide if the work will be a good fit for them, he said. It can also help students avoid college debt, if college isn’t the right choice for them, he said.

“It’s really given those kids an opportunity to think about: ‘What do I want to do? How do I want to get there? ... It doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all approach that I think generally we have seen in the past,” Hoerl said.

Tagert Bardin, 15, practices welding at Durango High School. Bardin is one of hundreds of students participating in the high school’s popular career and technical education program, which could help fill workforce shortages in Southwest Colorado.

Over the last four years, the high school has worked to ensure students can earn either college credit or industry credentials through many of the career and technical classes so they are eligible for employment immediately after college, Thurston said.

For example, in an advanced carpentry course, students are building a tiny home and learning about designing, building, permitting, selling and marketing a house, he said. Those skills translate to a pre-apprenticeship certificate that can improve their chances at a construction job, Thurston said.

While the labor market is tight across many industries, the shortage of workers in the construction industry has been accelerating for years, said Durango home builder Troy Dyer, president of Veritas Fine Homes.

For every five construction workers leaving the industry each year, only one new worker is entering, he said.

The conditions were set for a construction workforce shortage during the recession when many skilled workers left the industry, he said. Construction companies started noticing the shortage in 2013 and 2014 as the industry rebounded and it is now hurting overall production, Dyer said.

“Everyone is turning down work because they can’t even handle what they have got,” he said.

For the last few years, the Home Builders Association of Southwest Colorado has been working with local high schools to foster interest in the trades by mentoring students, donating tools and advising administrators on curriculum, he said.

Kaylee Tune, 16, checks the flatness of the coffee table she is building in woodworking class at Durango High School.
Kaylee Tune, 16, uses a belt sander on a coffee table she is building in woodworking class at Durango High School.

The school recently showed its commitment to trade-skills curriculum by extending the amount of time students can spend working on their tiny-home project in an advanced carpentry class, Dyer said. Instead of just one period of the day, students can spend seventh hour and an optional eighth hour of class time working on the tiny home, which has allowed them to get more work done, he said.

“We are really able to make the days count,” he said.

Lowering the number of required credit hours needed to graduate from high school from 27 to 23 in recent years also gave students more time to pursue career and technical education courses, Hoerl said.

Even for students who are college-bound, the classes cover skills that are translatable into other fields, Thurston said.

“Work ethic, creativity, collaboration, problem-solving – all those things are living really strongly in career and tech ed. That’s kind of where they thrive,” he said.

Rush Webster, 17, a senior at Durango High School, works on her rocking chair made of red oak during woodworking class. Other career and technical classes include agriculture, welding, early education, robotics, engineering, journalism and culinary arts.

Webster said when she started in carpentry as a freshman, all the components of the class, including power tools, were intimidating because she had no idea what she was doing.

But that’s all changed.

“I have learned a lot and I feel very confident in my abilities now,” she said.

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