In today’s world, there is a wide variety of career options available for students to pursue after graduation. For one student, that can mean heading off to a four-year university. For another, it can be taking over the operations on the family farm. Those gifted with the ability to work with their hands may choose a path in the auto industry, electronics, or the culinary arts. The country, and the world, needs individuals with every skill set working diligently in their chosen fields to keep things running smoothly.
Leading the Way to Bright Futures
Continuing to educate America’s youth in the noble pursuit of a career in the skilled trades is exactly what Nick Casey and the team at OKAW Area Vocational Center are all about. Located across the parking lot from Vandalia High School, the vocational center offers classes in a dozen skilled trades such as building trades, health occupations, culinary arts and auto mechanics, just to name a few. Understanding that not every student is on a path to further their education at a four-year university, Casey believes that touching base with students on their goals and ambitions for their future is vitally important. Speaking as a parent, he gave an example in the case of one of his own sons. “My middle child was into welding, and was very successful. Won a couple of competitions,” Casey recalled. His son didn’t express a desire to continue on to a university, and instead chose to enter the workforce, a decision which Casey supported. Casey said that was the start of his vision on how best to help the students like his son in his community.
Casey attributes much of the success of OKAW Area Vocational Center to the teachers who work there. “It is the teachers,” he said, “They come from the field. They see the potential, and I also saw that.” Having educators instructing the students from their perspective of real-world and on-the-job knowledge is an asset. Another component that has contributed to the success, Casey feels, is bringing in representatives from various union trades organizations to speak to the students about the wide range of possibilities open to them. Networking has paved the way for other opportunities to come along for students to get a taste of what they may be considering as a potential future career path. “And we’ll get calls [from people] needing commercial summertime help. […] I’ll tell the building trade instructor, and he’ll tell the kids. They may get a summer job, and that may turn into [a more permanent position after graduation],” he said.
The main objective is to help students find the smoothest path to a career as possible, which is something that Casey didn’t experience in his youth. “It’s a funny story, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated high school,” he said. He decided to go to Lake Land College in Mattoon, where a guidance counselor suggested that he pursue a degree in engineering since he excelled at math. After working as an engineering technician for several years, he said, “I didn’t really like it.” He began coaching a local team and, later, decided to go back to school for a degree in physical education. Upon completing his degree, he got a job as a PE teacher at Ramsey Elementary. “I’ve worked my way up through the ranks,” he said, having served as both the Dean of Students and Principal at Ramsey. When a position with OKAW came available, Casey threw his hat in the ring. Having been on several different tracks over the years, Casey and the team at OKAW are hoping to simplify things for their students. Exposing students to the multiple options available to them, not just at a university but also in the skilled trade fields, can help students make more informed decisions for themselves based on their individual goals and ambitions. “I think that’s eye opening, and I wasn’t exposed to that when I went through [school],” Casey said.
It can hardly be argued that education is one of the most fundamentally important things a community can give its young minds. The wonderful thing about education is that it doesn’t end with receiving that long-awaited diploma on graduation day; as we live and grow, we continue to learn. Everyone has a gift, an innate ability to fully grasp a concept that, perhaps, the person next to them doesn’t understand. Not everyone can take a motor apart and put it back together, implement a Port wine reduction into a recipe of their own creation, or weld a bead as smooth as silk. But someone can.