Industrial Education Ch. 4: Vocational and Jr. Colleges

Hawkeye Community College Industrial Education Class

This series of posts discusses the current state of industrial education in the US and around the world. I will cover topics covering elementary through high school education (including the STEM programs), vocational/technical schools and colleges, independent for profit courses both online and in-person, and some of the resources that can be found on the internet.


After High School in the United States, young people have several different paths they can follow. Besides those who have no idea what they want to do and stay at home trying to figure it out, there are basically 5 general things they can do:

1. Get a job. Without some kind of further training it can be difficult to land a job that pays much over the minimum wage. In this country there are a lot of kids who get stuck in service or retail jobs that they hate.

2. Get an apprenticeship/internship. There are very few of these positions available for young people with no experience. I have heard that in Europe and Canada there are programs that allow young adults to train at different companies for a reduced wage while they learn, while learning technical or clerical skills, but these are much harder to find in the US without “knowing somebody” at the company. Junior colleges and Universities provide more of these opportunities.

3. Join the military. In the United States, we have one of the largest and most well funded military services in the world. There are a lot of jobs in the military that provide good technical training, this is the path that I took after High School. I went into the Air Force, and ended up studying electronics, which is what led to my current field. After about a year of full-time school, I then taught electronics after that for a year, then ended up in an Engineering and Installation Group, which allowed me to travel and get some hands on experience. I did eight years in the 1980s and learned valuable technical and life lessons.

Unfortunately most military jobs are not this way, and some young people learn how to count rivets while guarding airplanes (an Air Force joke) or carry heavy things around while being shot at. While the military does have excellent training, not everyone has the aptitude and opportunity for skills that transfer to the civilian world. I found that even with my electronics training I couldn’t just get out and find a technical job where I could use my skills. My training was specific to certain kinds of hardware.

4. Go to a four year college and beyond. I got out of the military at 29 years of age and enrolled in a University for Electrical Engineering. At that time the Air Force did not have what’s known as the GI Bill, which would pay for school, so I had to find other ways including family help, working while studying, and of course debt. I did manage to graduate after 4 years, but even then I was competing for jobs with people 10 years younger. While I did land a job that led to my current field of Controls Engineering, it was hard and didn’t pay much to start.

Now 4 year colleges and Universities in the United States have become some of the most expensive in the world. Kids and parents are going into a lot of debt to get degrees from prestigious schools and sometimes get education in fields that don’t allow them to pay it back. This is a problem for others to discuss. I will also say that even though I went to a good Electrical Engineering school at a large University, most of what I learned is now obsolete or didn’t really apply in the first place. I could do some fancy math, learned a lot of science stuff, and got the “experience”, but much of EE or ECE classes back then had very little hands on work involved, it was… and still is… very theoretical. Probably the most important thing I gained from formal college was learning how to frame and solve technical problems. I learned 98% of what I use today after graduating from college. Of course doors were opened to me that I would have never had without having the “piece of paper”, my diploma.

5. Vocational Schools and Junior/Community Colleges. While I was still in the Air Force I took my college English and lower level math classes, paid for by the government. At Jefferson Davis Community College there were no industrial classes, partially because at the time (mid-80s) there was very little manufacturing in that area. Computers weren’t in wide use yet, and there was very little automated machinery outside of low level but expensive PLCs and discrete relay/timer controlled equipment. There was probably some kind of machine shop or auto mechanic type class there, but I’m not sure.

Fast forward to today, when there are lots of high tech, hands on classes available in almost every area of the country. As part of my recent development of training equipment, I have scoped out a lot of the training centers in my state. I live in Tennessee, which is a mid sized state as far as US states go. Here is what I found:

The community college program is run by the Tennessee Board of Regents. There are 13 junior colleges with name “state” in their title, i.e. Nashville State, Dyersburg State, Volunteer State, Motlow State, you get the idea. These colleges generally serve the area they are located and provide up to a 4 year Bachelor’s degree. They also serve as a lower cost entry point to the University system. The large Universities in my state include the University of Tennessee of which there are several locations, Vanderbilt University, Middle Tennessee State University, and the University of Memphis. There are also a lot of private universities including Belmont, Lipscomb, Fisk and many more. The Tennessee Board of Regents does not administer the bigger state universities or the private ones. These junior or community colleges generally provide all of the academics and humanities required to transfer to a large university but cost less.

In addition to the 13 community colleges the are 27 “TCAT” centers located around the state. TCAT is an acronym for Tennessee College of Applied Technology. These schools work closely with the Tennessee Workforce Development Board, a state government sponsored group that is responsible for increasing the competitive position of Tennessee businesses and attracting new businesses through the development of a highly skilled workforce.

A couple of weeks ago, just before the Christmas break I visited one of the TCAT facilities here in my town of Lebanon, Tennessee. I first sat down with Kevin Harrison, Academic Affairs and Community Relations coordinator. Here are some things I learned:

Some of the courses taught in the TCAT program; Administrative/Office Technology, Advanced Manufacturing, IT, Auto Mechanics, Machining, Nursing, Building Construction, Health Sciences and Industrial Technology/Mechatronics. Some High School programs like Cosmetology and Culinary arts are also administered by TCAT.

Our Lebanon facility is only a few years old, and is a sub-campus of TCAT in Hartsville, a small town a half hour or so away. The Hartsville facility has been around for about 55 years! There is also another small campus administered by Hartsville TCAT in Red Boiling Springs, a rural community near Kentucky.

The diploma earned from the different courses may or may not be accepted by other states and companies, but there is an ongoing relationship with manufacturing facilities in the region. The companies work with the TCAT centers and provide input on what kind of skills are needed in the workforce. So a diploma or certificate from a TCAT will probably get you preference in hiring at a local company.

Kevin took me over to the Advanced Automation lab to introduce me to the instructor, and to my surprise it was Ralph Reed, who I had worked with 25 years ago! At that time I worked for an Omron distributor and rep, and Ralph was the Omron regional guy for Tennessee. We attended several of the Omron training courses on PLCs, sensors and Machine Vision in 1994, so knew Ralph fairly well back then. We went to lunch and he told me a bit more about the programs, which reinforced some of what I already knew.

About three or four years ago I taught a Siemens class for Automation Training at one of the state community colleges, Pellissippi State. As I mentioned in my post, my students were teachers at Pellissippi and some other local vocational schools. They already knew Allen-Bradley’s products which are in wide use in the area, but needed to learn the Siemens Step 7 platform. As shown in the pictures from that post (click on the link above), they had some really nice lab equipment similar to what Ralph showed me. I had four or five students; two were graduate students at the University of Tennessee who were teaching here while getting advanced degrees in engineering, and two were retired maintenance guys with at least thirty years of experience in the field. I’ve found this typical of the instructors at vocational schools as far as background.

One interesting occurrence during the class: we got to the part where I usually explain UDTs to students, and I mentioned that Siemens UDTs worked like Allen-Bradley’s UDTs and served the same purpose. Without exception they stared at me like I was from Mars. Despite the fact they taught ControlLogix PLCs, they did not know what a UDT was! In their defense, the class they taught was very basic, and the purpose of the class was just to introduce students to PLCs. Ralph mentioned that beyond bits, timers and counters the class really didn’t get that far into it and the purpose was not to teach programming. Still, without UDTs a ControlLogix could be any other PLC, they all have timers and counters and bit logic.

As I mentioned, part of the reason I visited the local TCAT was to determine whether I could eventually get my advanced PLC curriculum and/or training equipment into the local junior colleges and vocational schools like TCAT. And the answer is… maybe. While my little factories and trainers are less expensive than the extrusion-based Amatrol systems they use and my curriculum is certainly more advanced, the equipment is marketed via educational manufacturer’s reps that aren’t even in the state. So it will be a long hard road to market my products. But of course I will keep trying.


In several of my old posts I mentioned that I had hired students from ITT Tech, a for-profit technical school that had several campuses here in Tennessee. I employed five or six young people, some of who stayed on after they graduated. I knew ITT Tech no longer had schools in Tennessee, and had heard several stories but never really researched it. Here is what I found through a simple Google search:

ITT Tech Shutters All Its Locations, Including Nashville

For-profit education giant closes down a week after being hit with federal sanctions. by J.R. Lind, The Patch (Tennessee local paper), Sept. 6, 2016

NASHVILLE, TN — After nearly a half-century of operation, for-profit education giant ITT Technical Institute announced it is closing all of its locations nationwide, including the Nashville campus on Elm Hill Pike, immediately.

In a statement, the Carmel, Ind.-based company said the “overwhelming majority” of its 8,000 employees have been laid off as part of the shutdown.

“It is with profound regret that we must report that ITT Educational Services, Inc. will discontinue academic operations at all of its ITT Technical Institutes permanently after approximately 50 years of continuous service. With what we believe is a complete disregard by the U.S. Department of Education for due process to the company, hundreds of thousands of current students and alumni and more than 8,000 employees will be negatively affected,” the statement read, in part.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education prohibited ITT Tech from taking any federal aid and required it raise its cash reserves from $94.4 million to $247.3 million. The sanctions, a response to reports that ITT Tech students were not adequately trained, were saddled with a disproportionate amount of student-loan debt and that ITT Tech used predatory practices on potential students, led ITT Tech to stop enrolling students.

It was effectively a death sentence for the schools. (End of Article)


The guys I hired from ITT were typical young people learning new skills at the trade school. My machine building company helped further their education by providing work for students, similar to how local companies have input to the Workforce Development Board. ITT Tech was almost certainly more expensive than these TCAT and vocational schools, but they provided decent education using probably the same instructor pool. I have not personally examined the curriculum from either but it appears from an outside perspective to be similar. So overall, having the state administer these programs is probably better and certainly less expensive than for-profit schools. The facilities also serve many more locations across the state than the for-profit schools, which were only located in metro areas.

I would be very interested in input from other states and countries. Please leave your comments below or drop me a line!


Electrical Engineer and business owner from the Nashville, Tennessee area. I also play music, Chess and Go.