Trade School Programs in Hot Demand in Tennessee

Written by Olivia Sanchez and Danielle Smith, The Hechinger Report-Public News Service Collaboration
June 27, 2023

Most of the guys come straight to the shop each afternoon. After long shifts at supermarkets and home improvement stores, they make their way to southwest Nashville just before 4 p.m., sometimes still in uniform, and pull into a massive parking lot shared by the local community college and the Nashville branch of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology, or TCAT.

Some might rev their engines and do a few laps around the mostly clear lot first, but they all eventually take a right toward the garage.

There, as the sun begins to set on a 70-degree February day, the students in the auto collision repair night class are preparing to spend the next five hours studying.

One is sanding the seal off the bed of his 1989 Ford F-350, preparing to repaint. Another, in his first trimester, is patiently hammering out a banged-up fender, an assignment that may take him weeks. Another, who has strayed in from the welding shop, is trying to distract the guys in the program he graduated from months before.

Some others linger around a metal picnic table in the parking lot, sipping cool sugary drinks and poking fun at each other’s projects. Among them is 26-year-old Cheven Jones, taking a break from working on his 2003 Lexus IS 300.

While almost every sector of higher education is seeing fewer students registering for classes, many trade school programs are booming. Jones and his classmates, seeking certificates and other short-term credentials, not associate degrees, are part of that upswing.

Mechanic and repair trade programs saw an enrollment increase of 11.5% from spring 2021 to 2022, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Enrollment in construction trades courses increased by 19.3%, while culinary program enrollment increased 12.7%, according to the Clearinghouse. Meanwhile, enrollment at public two-year colleges declined 7.8%, and enrollment at public four-year institutions dropped by 3.4%, according to the Clearinghouse.

Many young people who are choosing trade school over a traditional four-year degree say that they are doing so because it’s much more affordable and they see a more obvious path to a job.

“These kids are looking for relevance. They want to be able to connect what they’re learning with what happens next,” said Jean Eddy, president of American Student Assistance, a nonprofit dedicated to helping students make informed choices about their educations and careers. (ASA is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.) “I think many, many families and certainly the majority of young people today are questioning the return on investment for higher education.”

Eddy said the increased interest in the trades doesn’t necessarily mean these students won’t later go on to earn a bachelor’s degree, but “simply means that they are excited, and they’re more interested in getting into something where they can feel as though they are applying their skills and their talents to something that they can be good at.”

TCAT is a network of 24 colleges across the state that offers training for 70 occupations. TCAT Nashville offers 16-month to two-year courses including diesel and automotive technology and welding and construction technology, among others. Many of them have waiting lists, said Nathan Garrett, president of the college. To accommodate increased demand, the college has added night classes and is expanding shop space.

In Tennessee, the state’s overall community college enrollment took a hit during the pandemic, despite a 2015 state program that made community college tuition free. Still, at TCAT, many trade programs have continued to grow despite the downward enrollment trend.

TCAT focuses on training students for jobs that are in demand in the region, which appeals to many students in normal times, but Garrett said the pandemic may have underscored the need for workforce relevance.

“When we look at ‘essential workers,’ a lot of those trades never saw a slowdown,” he said. “They still hired, they still have the need.” Automotive trades are always in demand, he added.

Even so, Jones’s pursuit of a degree at TCAT Nashville would perhaps be a surprise to his high school self. “My parents just basically told me, ‘Finish high school and then just work,’ ” Jones said. “I didn’t necessarily know what I wanted to do, and my biggest fear was to go to college, put in all that time and effort and then not use my degree.”

So, at 18, Jones went to work in warehouses, spending long days loading and unloading heavy boxes from tractor-trailers. But he found it unfulfilling, it was terribly difficult on his body, and he wasn’t making enough money. After just a few years, he realized he needed a job that would make him happier, hurt him less and pay him more. Trade school for a career fixing cars, he decided, seemed like the best route.

Nineteen-year-old Robert Nivyayo’s priorities became clear a bit earlier in his education, when he realized he didn’t like high school very much. He said he spent most of his free time watching YouTube videos about fixing up cars before he owned one or was even licensed to drive.

He started saving up the money he earned stocking shelves at a Publix grocery store. And around the time the pandemic hit, he bought a 2005 Mustang off Facebook Marketplace for $800 cash. It didn’t run, so he hired a tow truck to lug it to his parents’ house. He took the engine apart, outfitted it with a new head gasket and put it back together, all while his online high school classes played on his smartphone.

Nivyayo’s parents, who came to the U.S. from Tanzania in 2007, had long urged their children to go to college, he said. When he enrolled at TCAT Nashville to pursue training in auto collision repair, they were pleased: “As long as I’m going to college, that’s all they really care.”

The path made sense for him, because he could earn a credential while doing what he enjoyed, and without spending much time in the traditional classroom. He’s looking forward to the anticipated payoff, when he gets a job in an auto shop.

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