Across the state, a total of 44 technical educator jobs remain unfilled. In 2015, just 20 people statewide graduated with tech ed teaching degrees, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
It’s no surprise, then, that Wisconsin faces a critical lack of technology teachers.
Dr. Michael Beeth leads the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Alternative Careers in Teaching program. He says Northeast Wisconsin is home to many of those open positions, and addressing that need is one of ACT’s goals.
Formed in 2004 through the Northeast Wisconsin Education Resource Alliance, the program was borne of a desire to harness the resources of public and private institutions to help meet the region’s workforce needs, Beeth says.
The program began as an initiative to recruit professionals, those with at least a bachelor’s degree in a related field, to teach math and science. ACT added the tech ed track, which has seven enrollees, a year ago. It’s one of several avenues the state has taken to address the shortage.
“Part of the impetus for this was not just the shortage of teachers but the number of programs that are shrinking,” Beeth says, noting that this dramatically affects the number of classes available and kids reached.
Steve Meyer, president of the Wisconsin Technology Education Association and a tech ed teacher at Brillion High School, says several reasons lie behind the teacher shortage. Few universities offer the certification, the teaching profession has “taken a bit of a hit,” and many tech ed teachers are aging and retiring. In addition, tech ed teachers have a lot of knowledge and can work in their actual field and possibly earn more money.
“It’s big,” Meyer says of the shortage. “Not only is it big in Wisconsin, but it’s big across the U.S.”
In his role, Meyer says his organization works to promote the benefits of technical education and overcome some of its stereotypes. He describes it as hands-on, minds-on education and says it’s a powerful tool for getting kids to understand how different disciplines work together.
The state Department of Public Instruction offers several options for those interested in becoming licensed to teach tech ed. Wisconsin requires a bachelor’s degree for all teaching licenses, but one option, the trade specialist permit pathway, allows those with “significant industry experience in a specific trade” to teach upper level classes in a related trade area.
The Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance is looking at piloting a program in the Green Bay public schools in which a manufacturing professional would team-teach alongside a certified teacher.
Meyer says it’s important to ensure that alternative licensure methods maintain rigorous standards. “The goal is to have the best teachers in front of kids all the time,” he says.
NEWMA has established a taskforce to address the shortage and is working with UW-Oshkosh and other higher learning institutions. Ann Franz, director of NEWMA, says she felt a great responsibility to help with the problem.
“We really felt like we were part of the problem,” she says, describing the organization’s efforts to get kids more interested in manufacturing only to then encounter teacher shortages.
NEWMA has created $8,000 in scholarships to entice educators to switch vocations. “One of the issues is a lot of the educators have to pay for that education themselves,” Franz says. “We take care of that for them.”
Corey Hansen, a tech ed teacher at Ashwaubenon’s Parkview Middle School, received a NEWMA scholarship to make the switch. Originally an elementary school teacher and then a library media specialist, Hansen decided to become a tech ed teacher 20 years into his career.
He went through an organization called Educate-WI, which offers EdCert, a Wisconsin DPI-approved alternate route to add a certification to a general education license. He’s worked with the organization, as well as Northeast Wisconsin and Fox Valley technical colleges, for two years and hopes to complete his program this summer to have his full license next school year.
Hansen says as he progressed in his teaching career, he began to see parallels between his specialty and STEM applications.
“Our school was selected to pilot the elementary curriculum that Project Lead the Way was developing,” he says. “That brought things like engineering, robotics and computer science to the elementary level. After going through some training, I quickly realized I loved the content and teaching kids about it.”
Four-year universities and technical colleges have begun working together to develop programs as well. This fall, Lakeland University, in collaboration with Lakeshore Technical College, will debut a technical education teaching degree program.
Degree-seeking students will enroll at Lakeland and take most their classes there. They’ll supplement their learning with 30 core technology credits taken at LTC, giving them access to the college’s state-of-the-art equipment.
David Black, president of Lakeland, says the university would like to take the program statewide. “Wherever there’s a two-year state-supported or locally supported tech college, there would be an opportunity for four-year colleges and universities to replicate the model,” he says.
Enrollment numbers haven’t yet emerged, but Black says focus groups and surveys indicate strong interest, especially from people who have been working in their field and realized they would like to teach.
These efforts are good news to districts sorely in need of tech ed teachers. One of those is Howards Grove, which recently filled an open position after a three-year search. Scott Fritz, principal of Howards Grove High School, says the school had to resort to the stopgap measure of asking a retired teacher to fill in before finally finding a candidate.
“Being a small district, it’s hard for us to compete,” Fritz says of losing applicants to districts that could offer signing bonuses.
Challenges aside, WTEA’s Meyer says he’s optimistic about the future. He says sometimes it takes a bit of a crisis to bring about change. He looks to indicators like increased participation in activities such as Skills USA and sees positive signs that kids are growing more interested in technical fields.
Meyer also sees an opportunity to boost the ranks starting with promoting tech ed teaching careers to school-age kids. “We maybe are not the best advocates for our own career.”
To learn more about Wisconsin Technical Education Pathways to Licensure: https://dpi.wi.gov/te/licensure