October 23, 2021

Taking their careers in hand

As cost of college tuition rises, more students turn to trade schools

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Hunter Kent works on a measuring plate June 4 at the Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES campus in Cortlandville. As the cost of college rises, more high school students are enrolling in vocational education programs for career training.

The hot, Friday afternoon sun and high humidity envelop the students at Cortlandville’s Onondaga-CortlandMadison BOCES campus.

No tests are being taken and no discussions are occurring.

Instead, the deafening noise of welding machinery is taking their place while students like Nolan Ryan, a senior at Marathon High School, weld pieces of metal together in tarped booths.

Ryan took up the welding technology course at the recommendation of his brother’s friend. The friend said it was fun and that he has made good money since completing the program and going into the work force.

Taking this course and gaining a vocational education over going to college came from Ryan “not always being the best with schoolwork,” including struggling with tests, he said.

Ryan is an example of the building trend for high school students going into a trades education over a four-year college education.

Trade school enrollment has risen from 9.6 million students in 1999 to 16 million in 2014, according to a 2019 article from The Atlantic. This rise in enrollment has coincided with the rise
in tuition costs for four-year colleges and universities.

“The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2020–2021 school year was $41,411 at private colleges, $11,171 for state residents at public colleges and $26,809 for out-of-state students at state schools,” according to a 2020 U.S. News and World Report article.

That includes a 72% increase in tuition for in-state students at public universities between 2008 and 2021.

For students looking to get a job as soon as possible out of high school and not looking to go to college, a vocational education might be the way to go, said Matt Cook, the district superintendent of Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

“They should be ready to get started in their field but how far they want to go is like every other part of life,” he said.


OCM BOCES offers a variety of courses in its Career and Technical Education programs, Cook said: automotive technology, welding, construction and heavy equipment repair, operations and diesel technology.

Other programs in non-trades industries are offered as well such as cosmetology, culinary arts and graphic communications.

The programs are designed to meet the needs of employers, Cook said. Internships allow employers scout talent.

“Employers will provide space and what they get in return is a pipeline of potential employees,” Cook said. “That’s what employers are looking for right now.”

The most popular programs, Cook said, tend to be the ones students see the greatest need for hiring in, like welding.

He has also seen a rise in enrollment in career-courses for high school students over the last decade as social views have shifted from having all students go to college to seeing the benefits of programs like CTE.

Why? Cook said the cost of college may play a big part.

“I certainly know some young folks who have college experiences who have questioned the debt and return on investment they’ve had,” he said.

The average total student loan debt for college seniors graduating in 2019 was $30,062, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Additionally, there can be a greater sense of satisfaction for students having a job right after completion of their technical program, he said.

Students come out of programs with two sets of important skills, Cook said. They gain technical skills in their concentration, such as what specific tools do and when they’re applicable.

The students gain soft skills, too, such as learning how to work in groups, solve problems and be on time.

“All of the skills employers are looking for,” he said.

Median 2019 salaries for people 25 years or older by education

  • Bachelor’s degree: $64,896
  • Associate’s degree: $46,124
  • High school diploma: $38,792
  • Less than high school diploma: $30,784
  • Based on weekly earnings

— Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Average student debt for a bachelor’s degree

$30,062 — Source: U.S. News and World Report

Median 2020 trade job salaries

  • Heating, air conditioning and refrigeration mechanics and installers: $50,590
    Carpenters: $49,520
    Welders, cutters, solders and brazers: $44,190
    Automotive service technicians and mechanics: $44,050

— Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics


While other students worry about memorizing dates or solving equations, the most challenging work Ryan deals with is tungsten inert gas welding, he said.

The method uses a tungsten weld in an inert gas, such as argon, to protect it from airborne contaminants.

TIG welding can produce clean, precise welds on any metal. The hardest part of TIG welding is keeping making sure all the parts are clean and controlling the power amps, Ryan said.

“It’s pretty fun,” he said. “Some of the things are challenging but it’s pretty fun.”

The work CTE students do can also be a way to apply longtime passions for careers.

Lucas Allem, a senior from McGraw High School, said he has always been working with his hands and wanted to expand on it.

Allem signed up for the automotive technology course and has learned skills such as changing oil and changing brakes, he said.

His work has landed him an internship at Dovi Motors Inc. in Cortlandville and has already secured a full-time job in the repair shop once he finishes high school.

Ryan said his experience at OCM BOCES has given him a good feeling for a career he wants to fulfill.

“I feel like it’s a good foot in the door to a lot of good opportunities with welding jobs,” he said. “I feel like pretty much anywhere you go, there’s going to be a demand for welders and you can make really good money doing this.”

The 2020 median salary for welders was $44,190 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Jed Swayze welds June 4 at the Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES campus in Cortlandville.


Priority Fire Apparatus and Service Center has never hired students from OCM BOCES, but hopes to one day, said Gere Henry, a part-owner, mechanic and electrician.

“Everyone we’ve had through the program has been pretty good,” he said. “They’re hard workers not afraid to get dirty.”

The business had interns so students could learn more about vehicle repair work beyond the basics they learn at OCM BOCES, Henry said.

As the business, which focuses on emergency vehicle repair and personal vehicle work, looks to hire new workers, it has struggled getting students straight out of OCM BOCES as many continue their technical education elsewhere.

“It would be nice to,” Henry said.