Independent Journalist

Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC.

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An Oklahoma CareerTech center has created an innovative program to help adults displaced by the coronavirus shutdown move rapidly from the classroom to the workforce.

Tri County Tech, which serves Washington, Nowata, and Osage Counties in northeastern Oklahoma, was awarded a $1 million grant from Gov. Kevin Stitt to create its “Skills to Rebuild” program. The dollars, which come from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, authorized by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, are designated to help those left unemployed or underemployed by layoffs, business closures, and other impacts of the pandemic. 

But Tri County has gone beyond the norm with a flexible, fast-track program designed to accelerate back-to-work efforts by its students.

“Our typical student for this program is 30, maybe a high-school graduate who is unhappy with his or her work status,” said Tri County Superintendent Lindel Fields. The goal is to move those students as rapidly as possible into what Fields calls “gratifying, upwardly mobile careers.”

Students will attend classes—most in person but some online—an average of 8 hours per week with sessions scheduled two nights each week and on Saturday so that those who are still employed can arrange their schedules. One program, for Certified Nursing Assistants, is especially in demand given the pandemic’s impact on the health care system.

Other Skills to Rebuild programs focus on accounting, child development, computer work and cyber-security, and manufacturing. The latter involves machine work and Fields said his curriculum can be condensed to 450 hours from a traditional 900 to 1,000, with no loss of content.

That is one reason Tri County stopped accepting federal Pell Grant funding five years ago.

“They establish all sorts of requirements including a minimum number of hours,” Fields said. That one-size-fits-all mandate stifles innovations like Skills to Rebuild, he noted.

Thanks to the Stitt-authorized grant funds, the first class of 375 students utilizing the program will graduate owing no tuition if they successfully complete their coursework, Fields said.

“We announced the program on social media and word of mouth and within the first few days we had 388 applications,” he said. “That shows the demand is there. These are highly motivated adult students.”

He noted one 40-year-old student with a college degree who had been laid off from an oilfield job who is pursuing a machinist certification that will likely net him an annual salary in the $50,000 range to start.

Fields said depending on the program, most of the Skills to Rebuild students will be able to complete their coursework and begin work within two months. More technical fields might take as long as 10 months, still much shorter than the time required for even a two-year associate college degree.

Programs like this are an ideal way of breaking higher education’s virtual monopoly on preparing people for white-collar jobs, according to Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Higher education enjoys a de facto monopoly over career preparation for white collar jobs in this country,” Kurtz noted in a recent article. “The way to end the higher ed monopoly is to build up an apprenticeship sector.”

Programs of this sort “could move high school graduates into white-collar jobs far more quickly than college, and without crippling debt,” Kurtz wrote. 

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