LANSING — When a home bursts into flames and firefighters rush to put out the blaze or rescue those trapped inside, many try to get away from the fire.
But for teenager Dayveon Thomas, heading into the fire is a calling and a career.
Thomas is part of the class of 2022 at Sexton High School and is a recent graduate of the Lansing Fire Science Academy, a local program that trains high school students in Lansing to become firefighters and paramedics.
So while some of his classmates are enjoying their summer before starting college this fall, Thomas is looking forward to starting his career as a firefighter.
“The idea of running into a burning building to save someone else or being there for families on their worst day, taking some of their stress off,” Thomas said. “(It’s) about helping people.”
Thomas is one of a growing number of high school graduates across the country who are choosing to enter the workforce as soon as possible after graduation rather than enrolling in a college degree program or university. Total post-secondary enrollment fell by 16.2 million students this spring, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, resulting in a 4.1% decline over the past year. Undergraduate enrollment saw the largest decline, dropping 4.7%.
For graduates like Thomas, the choice not to go to university or at least to delay his studies in the near future was an easy decision. He fell in love with the firefighting profession, thanks in part to his uncle, who is a firefighter in Bangor.
“Just watching him do what he does, the way he behaves,” Thomas said. “I was fascinated.”
Thomas still needs to get his firefighter and EMT certifications, but that doesn’t require a college degree. With the help and support of firefighters from the Lansing Fire Science Academy, he hopes to get certified at Lansing Community College and get to work. They expressed the hope that he will stay and work in Lansing.
Students see local work opportunities
A record 890 students are already enrolled at the Wilson Talent Center in the Ingham Intermediate School District for classes next fall and many will have the opportunity to enter the workforce as soon as they graduate from high school. ‘secondary studies.
Wilson Talent Center offers vocational and technical training courses for juniors and seniors attending high schools in the Ingham ISD service area encompassing 12 public school districts, 10 public school academies, as well as more than 44,000 students in seven central Michigan counties.
More than 18 programs are offered in 12 career clusters. Some of the most popular programs include healthcare, cosmetology, automotive technology, and welding technology. Some students do externships and internships and, if they go well, can start working immediately after graduation.
In other programs, like hairdressing, students are trained and upon graduation they can take a test, get certified, and can go straight to work.
“A lot of students will go to college,” said Joe Wenzel, director of the Wilson Talent Center. “But they have the option of working at university, continuing their studies or entering the labor market directly.”
As students prepare for future careers, they realize the burden of debt they could incur by pursuing a college education.
More than 40 million Americans have collectively accumulated more than $1 trillion in student loan debt, and in Michigan, student borrowers owe an average of $36,116, according to the Education Data Initiative.
The burden of student debt has caused some students to reconsider their future after high school.
“I think students understand that college debt is real,” Wenzel said. “I think it’s more commonly talked about in our culture now. They realize it’s there and there are opportunities for them to get high-paying jobs in careers they enjoy without all the college debt.
Students may still have to pay for their certification courses, but other programs help pay for that, like the Lansing Promise. Thomas, and any graduate of a Lansing high school, is included in the scholarship program which covers tuition and fees to take up to 65 credits at Lansing Community College or the equivalent dollar amount for tuition and fees at Michigan State University, Olivet College and, more recently, the University of Davenport.
Build a talent pool
LCC offers many certification programs, including in popular areas like welding and advanced manufacturing. Over the past few years, more and more recent high school graduates have gone through the LCC to get their certification and get on the job.
“There’s a different feeling right now,” said LCC technical careers dean Cathy Wilhm. “Employers look at our 18-year-olds or our high school students differently than in the past.”
With labor shortages persisting, employers are looking at different ways to attract more talent, including recent attempts to launch talent journeys to attract younger employees, such as recent high school graduates, into their workforce.
Many certifications required to work in fields requiring people, such as welding and automotive, do not require associate’s or bachelor’s degrees. Instead, students can complete certificate programs over one to two semesters and get to work soon after.
LCC works to engage employers in recruiting students, providing fresh high school graduates with employment and labor for short-staffed employers.
“In the past, you had more people than you really needed. The younger ones…they didn’t see them as being ready,” Wilhm said. “Now they need to develop their talent pool and they see an opportunity to take young people with an interest or a propensity for something and help develop that talent.”
There are real career opportunities that more and more students are seizing. From fall 2020 to fall 2021, LCC’s Technical Careers Programs added 100 additional students to its enrollment.
“It’s packed right now,” Wilhm said. “There is renewed interest.
While Thomas has to wait a bit before he can start his firefighting career, in the meantime he has applied for a job with GM and is looking for opportunities to stay involved with the fire department, including a ride that he hopes to take part in.
It’s only early in his career, but Thomas is already excited to consider the possibilities.
“I like having as many options as possible, whether it’s work or a career,” he said. “I want to have endless options and do whatever I can.”