Skills for life: Nevada Joint Union High School District and Sierra College want students to embrace career technical education |

Skills for life: Nevada Joint Union High School District and Sierra College want students to embrace career technical education

Sam Corey
Staff Writer

During his freshmen year, Decker Bjorn took an introduction to design class at Nevada Union High School.

Bjorn enjoyed the class. Through it he earned a summer internship with Autometrix, a local manufacturer. Although he likes creating things with his hands, the recent NU graduate may not take a vocational job — he’s open to attending a four-year university, exploring cognitive science and psychology.

Bjorn’s flexibility is what Scott Mikal-Heine, career technical education coordinator with Nevada Joint Union High School District, is trying to foster.

Mikal-Heine will be Silver Springs High School vice principal effective July 1, according to district Superintendent Brett McFadden. McFadden said he’s beefing up the new director of career technical education position, and will soon have a replacement.

The district is encouraging vocational education for its students, and hopes to prepare them for a changing economy that demands professional and academic adaptability.

Down the road, Sierra College is also creating more transparency and awareness around career technical education, as it works with the state to prevent millions of jobs from going unfilled.

The district’s changed mentality is not how schools traditionally operated, said Mikal-Heine.


Since the Vietnam War era, shop class and the associated blue collar jobs have been stigmatized because students who followed that path were more likely to be drafted, said Mikal-Heine. This, he said, is where the district, state and nation began to go wrong, overemphasizing a now-fabled binary: attend a four-year university or get a middle, or low, income job after graduation.

“We kind of have this two-tiered system, and we’ve been telling students at the high school level it’s either or,” he said. “It’s either jobs, white collar, that you need a bachelor’s degree, or there are jobs where you’re a Walmart greeter.”

There’s more nuance to vocational education, said Mikal-Heine. Most students don’t go to a four-year university, and even those who do rarely work in the field they studied. Rather, students frequently change jobs and attend college at later periods. A deeper outlook on vocational education isn’t just critical for students, but also for our economy, said Mikal-Heine.

“We’re experiencing workforce issues in more than just building,” he said. “We’re talking about jobs connected to mechatronics, electromechanics, people in (information technology) — we’re suffering from a teacher shortage right now.”

The sort of journeyman’s approach is what Mikal-Heine is advocating, where students embrace different work and academic experiences every few years.

“Educators know that life after high school requires constant retooling for students, and that includes (career technical education), along with two and four year college, trade school, graduate school, certificate programs (and) on-the-job training,” said Mikal-Heine.

Today, the school district has 18 pathways under nine industry sectors, including computer science, automotive, technical theater and graphic design, said Mikal-Heine. The pathways are meant to provide opportunities for internships, jobs and college preparedness.

While not all students finish a pathway, “roughly 45 percent” of them take a career technical education class, according to McFadden, adding that vocational programs are within the top five priorities for the school district, among things like special needs, college readiness, rehabilitative and extra-curricular programs.

Decker Bjorn has taken three career technical education classes in the design and engineering pathway, but it’s his flexibility that typifies the district’s philosophy. The senior doesn’t know if his shop classes will lead to one particular place, but learning with his hands provides options, and is something he enjoys doing.

“It’s like, ‘Yes, I can build it, and I know how to build it,’” said Bjorn of his shop classes.


In 2016, the California State Assembly approved $246 million annually toward the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office for the Strong Workforce Program. The program was meant “to improve the availability and quality of (career technical education) programs leading to certificates, degrees and credentials” at 113 community colleges with 10 prioritized sectors, including manufacturing, agriculture, retail and health.

By 2025, 30 percent of job openings in California will require training for middle-skilled workers who don’t require a four-year degree, according to a report by the chancellor’s office. Based on current predictions, however, California will fall short by one million middle-skilled workers by that time.

Enter the Strong Workforce Program.

The Strong Workforce Program’s “Sacramento & Far North” region — which includes Nevada County — was allocated $17 million from 2016-17 or about nine percent of the program’s budget. The advanced manufacturing and health sectors received prioritized funding.


For most of the 20th century, Sierra College, like many community colleges, has focused on vocational education. More recently, the emphasis for community college’s has been to ensure graduated students secure a well-paying job especially as tuition rises.

The career focus is not some abstract point for Stephanie Ortiz, executive dean at Sierra College’s Nevada County Campus. Ortiz has watched young students, even those close to her, struggle to acquire a well-paying job.

“My godson had this issue,” she said, noting that it took him three years to find a job after college.

Sierra College receives around $1.6 million a year to invest in vocational programs, said Ortiz. The school specifically needs to invest in areas where there is a market need and where high paying wages exist, like the advanced manufacturing sector, as recommended by the state.

The college is also trying to enhance awareness for students about viable career paths with added help from the state.

“What we’re trying to do is be transparent with students, have them think about their career goal,” said Ortiz. “Many of our students really don’t know what to do.”

Since 2015, the college has also been a part of a wider community college movement toward guided pathways. The program is meant to help students map out their academic interests and provide career counseling so they complete their degree on time or transition to a four-year university.

“Sierra College is among a handful of California community colleges that are out in the lead of the guided pathways movement,” said Ortiz, the dean of a campus enrolling about 3,000 students per year.

The college has a number of programs it’s pushing on students, including administration of justice, engineering technology and mechatronics the state says will be clear pathways to a needed, stable job.

While Sierra College’s automotive technology program was temporarily suspended for a year, administrators say they hope to resurrect a stronger program in its place.


Despite the promise of vocational education, convincing Nevada Joint Union High School District students to take Career Educational Technology classes can be a struggle, said Mikal-Heine.

“There’s a challenge alone recruiting students,” he said. “They have that own stigmatized belief system — sometimes — attached to programs.”

In the 2018-19 school year, 53 percent of Nevada Union and 69 percent of Bear River students enrolled in career technical education courses, according to a Nevada County Grand Jury report.

Still, the district is trying to revitalize an even stronger vocational education program, said Mikal-Heine. When Jerry Brown was governor, he introduced the local control funding formula, thereby eliminating funding for specific programs like regional occupational programs for vocational education. Districts like Nevada Joint Union have had to redesign their programming, thereby folding regional occupational programs into the new career technical educational pathways, said Mikal-Heine.

“We’ve had to sort of rebuild our own thing with our own teachers,” said Mikal-Heine. The process is happening quickly.

The district is creating a facility for a modern construction and trades program at Silver Springs High School. With help from the Nevada County Contractors Association, McFadden hopes to finish the project by the start of the 2021 school year. That building will help support vocational education in a district that gets over $1.5 million annually for its program.

“We have more (career technical education) teachers than a district maybe five times our size,” said Mikal-Heine.

The soon-to-be vice principal doesn’t know with assurance if career technical education programs help students – the data hasn’t been compiled. But he believes, at the very least, vocational education provides students a purpose to attend school.

“Any (career technical education) teacher will tell you this,” he said. “Their students are saying, ‘This is my favorite class. This is what’s keeping me in school everyday.’”


When Mikal-Heine was in high school, he took metals and electronics classes. Yet, his counselor found it strange that he still wanted to attend a four-year university.

“I was a student that was more aimed at the college prep,” he said, “but I did take a lot of shop classes, which confused my high school counselor.”

Mikal-Heine didn’t let his counselor bother him. Instead, he led with his shop class skills, pursuing a degree in industrial design at a four-year university.

“I was more prepared to talk about materials and processes and manufacturing and production (in college), and it directly applied to an industrial design degree,” he said.

Mikal-Heine himself is a journeyman. After college, he became a builder, then worked with furniture. After that, he was an electrician and a blacksmith. Years later, he taught art class and other shop classes until recently, landing a job with the district.

He loves being able to produce things and enjoys watching students do the same.

“Seeing students make an object, and have it in their hand like a guitar, and then being able to play that object, that’s empowering for students,” said Mikal-Heine

Their shared perspective may be partly why Mikal-Heine has enjoyed Decker Bjorn’s path.

Bjorn is open to attending a University of California school, or continuing on with engineering, he said. But a lot of the shop class work is simply enjoyable.

“It’s a big thing in my life, building stuff,” he said. “I love it.”

The student built a guitar amplifier with vacuum tubes for his senior project. This, he said, is how they were built before transistors arrived in the ’60s and ’70s.

Bjorn’s senior project won’t necessitate a job in engineering or a full-time career at Autometrix. Life, he said, is malleable.

“Things can change later,” said Bjorn, “and I may be like, ‘I want to build this.’ Just being able to shift to different careers is nice.”

Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at

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