In a presentation to the Altamont Chamber of Commerce on Monday, April 8, Nick Casey and Altamont student Gabe Asplin spoke about the benefits of the Okaw Area Vocational Center, a workforce training program that has supplied central Illinois with skilled tradeworkers since 1968.
Casey, the Okaw Area Vocational Center director, introduced the program as a selection of “elective classes on steroids,” preparing students to enter a number of trades immediately after high school, or to enroll in technical training programs with relevant experience already under their belts. The program is housed on Vandalia High School’s campus, and serves around 290 students, who hail from Altamont, Brownstown, Farina, Greenville, Hillsboro, Mulberry Grove, Pana, Patoka, Ramsey, Sandoval, and Vandalia. These students attend a half-day session at their home school for core classes, and are then bussed to OAVC for two-and-a-half hour sessions, running from 8:50-11:20 a.m. and 12:20-2:30 p.m. Some schools choose to send OAVC students for only one session, while others offer the option of morning or afternoon sessions.
Once at OAVC, students are able to pick from a number of career and technical training programs, all taught by experienced, accomplished tradespeople. Many of the instructors at OAVC are former welders, construction workers, mechanics, or chefs, and many continue to work in their field after school hours. “A good instructor will make or break the program,” said Casey; if OAVC’s rising enrollment is any indicator, then the instructors certainly do make the program.
OAVC students don’t scrimp on the standard high school experience, either. If a student plans their high school years carefully, they can finish high school with both an OAVC experience and a full slate of core class credits, largely the same as any classmate at their home school. “I don’t miss out on any classes,” says Asplin, though he notes some scheduling conflicts with Altamont classes.
OAVC’s programs are centered around real-world labor and meaningful projects—early classes, particularly the first year of a two-year program, are largely instructional, but as students gain the skills to perform their future trades, they also begin to practice those skills. Auto body and auto mechanics students work on customer projects: their own cars, instructors’ vehicles, and cars from local residents. The building trades class is known for producing complete, livable houses, often around 2,200 square feet in size; 46 of the class’s homes dot Fayette county, mainly in Vandalia. Foods students cater nearby functions and instructor meetings, and the graphic design students sometimes produce artwork for nearby businesses. Health occupations students, who get workplace experience at area hospitals and nursing homes, even obtain Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) licensure by the time they graduate high school.
The opportunity to immediately put their skills to use is something that draws students into the program, says Casey, and it even brings out the best in students who were known for behavioral struggles in their home schools. “The kids want to be there,” Casey comments. “They don’t want to sit in English class and listen to Shakespeare. They want to get their hands dirty.”
On-the-job experience has been vital for many OAVC students’ success stories. Asplin noted that he was offered a summer job at a local auto body shop—the shop called OAVC for an employee recommendation, and his name was passed along. Another OAVC student, a graduate of the foods program, now owns and operates a food truck in New York. Altamont’s Shane Frederking, the owner of Frederking Construction, is also an OAVC graduate. “I can tell you the program changed my direction,” Frederking noted during Casey’s presentation to the Altamont Chamber.
A number of programs offered at OAVC are eligible for dual credit with Kaskaskia College and Lake Land College. Those programs include the auto body, auto mechanics, building trades, health occupations, office technology, and welding/metal fabrication. The culinary arts program offers dual credit through Kaskaskia College only. OAVC also offers programs in graphic design, computer-aided design (CAD), computer technology, and power mechanics/power sports.
For more information on the Okaw Area Vocational Center, or to schedule student work for your car or small engine, catering, graphic design, and more, contact the Center at (618) 283-5150.