“It's the best tech program of all the schools out there"

Chelltonia Burnett wants to learn everything she can about building and property maintenance. She found a place in Kansas City, Kan., to learn how to do it. “I want to fix things,” Burnett said.

The Kansas City, Kan., resident is a first-semester student in the building and property maintenance program at the Dr. Thomas R. Burke Technical Education Center at Kansas City Kansas Community College (KCKCC). The center opened in August 2013 in a renovated former Walmart store building at 6565 State Ave.

The center offers more than 20 study programs, most of which require 11 months to complete. Its top five programs, based on enrollment, are culinary arts, cosmetology, welding, HVAC and auto tech, said Rich Piper, KCKCC’S director of technical programs. About 725 students are enrolled in the center’s programs, which it offers through day and night classes.

In its first year, 93 percent of the center’s graduates found jobs, said Marshall Dominguez, outreach specialist for the center. His work is funded by a four-year, $2.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

In July, 9.7 million Americans were unemployed, according to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Currently, job openings nationally total 4.7 million, Piper said.

“There’s a skills gap in the U.S.,” he told Kansas City Hispanic News. “Many of these openings are in tech fields, in which you need some basic level of tech education in the skilled trades. And that’s what we do at the tech center.”

Piper said that technical education serves “individuals who have a gift.”

“They can visualize it and make it happen with their hands,” he said.

Part of the skills gap is caused by a trend toward high schools offering fewer shop classes, Piper said. That results from the notion that college is the only way to get a job that pays well. But that, he said, is a false notion.

“If you talk to small-manufacturing business owners, most of them got there through tech education,” Piper said.

That education’s value comes substantially from hands-on training, which sometimes contradicts traditional academics in a subject, Piper said. The center recently had five students from the University of Kansas master’s program in engineering who were fulfilling hands-on requirements for their degrees.

In one instance, their computer software told them one thing, but their experience in the trenches told them something different, he said.

“They couldn’t wait to get back to school and tell their professors they were wrong,” Piper said.

The amount of hands-on training the center requires is the reason it’s “the best tech program of all the schools out there in the Kansas City area,” said Dave Yantz, the center’s HVAC instructor.

Mack DePriest of Kansas City, Kan., works full time in the building trades. DePriest is 61, he’s enrolled in the HVAC program, and he’s looking down the road.

“Sooner or later, I’ll be unable to work full time,” he said. “I’m doing this as a hobby that I’ll be able to make some money from.”
Ralph Bautista, director of the center’s cosmetology program, has worked in the field for 44 years and owns a salon in the Kansas City area.

“After 1,500 hours, students can go out and build a business in any state,” Bautista told Hispanic News. “People always need their hair cut. They need to look good.”