They say those who can’t do, teach. But in the case of Brian Huff and Mike Casper, those who can do teach—and then open a school.
After these two high school friends became trained welders and saw the abundance of job opportunities in industries like manufacturing and construction, they knew there was a need for skilled workers. They’d gotten comfortable training others on the job, but they wanted to do more—and for more people. In 1995, they opened their first school: Midwest Welding and Fabricating in Lincoln, Illinois. After two years, they applied for accreditation and after four years, they began accepting financial aid. Their commitment to providing a good service for their students helped them grow their program offerings as well as their school locations.
Today, Midwest Technical Institute (MTI) and Delta Technical College (DTC) operate six campuses in three states, offering students the hands-on training they need to begin (or advance) their careers in fields like allied health, cosmetology, trucking, and—of course—welding. Their rapid growth over the last 25 years isn’t a result of making snap decisions or expanding their curricula just so they could say they were adding new programs. Mike and Brian are deliberate in choosing program areas that have a need for skilled workers and fields where there is interest from their prospective students.
“We want to do what’s relevant and what’s needed,” Mike says. “We don’t want to add programs just to add a new course.”
As Brian says, it’s not a cliché to say that they’re changing lives at MTI and DTC. He will never forget seeing their first class of graduates get jobs after completing their education—and that sense of pride and achievement comes back every year as more and more grads are sent out into the real world to create career success.
“We’re helping people build their lives,” Brian says. “I gotta pinch myself sometimes.”
Mike agrees, admitting that he wasn’t a particularly good student in high school but adding that he loved working with his hands. It didn’t take long for him to realize that it was just as valuable a skill as being able to master algebra or write lengthy papers. Now, he relishes the chance to see that lightbulb of understanding come on for his students. Many of the students who thrive in hands-on industries may have struggled in school, and being able to master a trade can lead to a huge boost in their self-esteem.
That doesn’t mean that managing a school and helping students graduate is always easy, though, especially during a global health crisis. Students are likely to face hurdles and deal with adversity at one point or another, and they have to stay committed to the future ahead of them in order to meet their goals.
In order to support that drive toward success, the schools are eager to move with the times and offer support in any ways they can for their students. From keeping students active in their courses, returning each semester, graduating with a certificate or degree, and finding a job, MTI and DTC offer a variety of student services that can help.
“We want to change people’s mindsets,” Mike says. “From day one, they have to know that they can change their future and that the opportunities are real. It’s up to them to get going.”
That starts with talking to high school students and recent graduates about postsecondary education options beyond the traditional four-year degree. After decades of students being told that they must go to college in order to achieve career success, or that a traditional university was the best—or only—option after high school, Brian says the veil is being lifted. With the high costs of student loan debt, extra time spent in the classroom completing general education requirements, and low completion rates at the four- or even six-year mark, a traditional university program no longer seems like a silver bullet to stability and success.
“The word is getting out,” Brian says. “Now we can have an honest conversation about why we’re upside down in education.”
Today, only about one in four of American jobs requires a bachelor’s degree (or a graduate degree), according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If we’re encouraging 100 percent of high school seniors to get a four-year degree, we’re going to have a problem on our hands. And in many cases, we already do: Many skilled trades are facing employee shortages for jobs that offer salaries much higher than the minimum wage, not to mention additional benefits like health insurance, paid time off, or advanced training opportunities.
Hands-on training programs like the ones offered by MTI and DTC are designed to prepare students specifically for their career of interest, but they can also do so in less time—meaning that students are often able to spend less on the cost of school and able to get to work (and start earning a salary) more quickly than if they commit to four full years in the classroom. For students who are eager to start making a living in their new trade, time is critical. That’s why MTI and DTC’s programs are intended to be completed in as short a timeframe as possible—most programs can be completed in nine months or fewer—and why they’re proud to offer student services like part-time job assistance and résumé-building workshops, in addition to tutoring programs and an on-campus Learning Resource Center.
The schools also understand, however, that as important as school and job preparation are, their students have other things to think about too. By helping students find affordable childcare or convenient housing options, offering transportation assistance for those who need it, and even providing lunch-and-learn programs on topics from interview skills to keeping a budget, MTI and DTC are committed to helping students find success beyond the classroom. Some of these programs have, of course, needed a little tweaking in the age of a global pandemic. But while the COVID-19 pandemic may have created some unexpected hurdles in Mike and Brian’s own path, they’re not too worried.
“We feel pretty good about the future because we know how relevant we are,” Brian says. “We don’t see that going away any time soon.”
Mike is quick to agree: “There’s careers beyond your imagination. Just look at our own path, from welders to school founders. You never know where these skills will take you.”
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