It’s almost 4 p.m. at the Nashville branch of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology, and the students in the auto collision repair night class are just starting their school day.
One is sanding the seal off the bed of his 1989 Ford F-350. Another is patiently hammering out a banged-up fender. A third, Cheven Jones, is taking a break from working on his 2003 Lexus IS 300 to chat with some classmates.
While almost every sector of higher education has fewer students registering for classes, many trade programs are thriving. Jones and his classmates, seeking certificates and other short-term credentials — not associate degrees — are part of that upswing.
Trade programs are often more affordable than a traditional four-year degree, students note, and, for many, skilled trades offer a more obvious path to a job.
Mechanic and repair trade programs saw an enrollment increase of 11.5% from spring 2021 to 2022, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. In construction trades, enrollment grew 19.3%, and in culinary programs, it increased 12.7%. Meanwhile, overall enrollment declined 7.8% at public two-year colleges, and 3.4% at public four-year institutions.
In Tennessee, the state’s overall community college enrollment took a hit during the pandemic, despite a 2015 state program that made community college tuition free. But at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology, a network of 24 colleges that offers training for 70 occupations, many trade programs have continued to grow. At TCAT Nashville, several programs have waiting lists, and the college has added night classes to meet demand, said Nathan Garrett, president of the college.
TCAT focuses on training students for jobs that are in demand in the region, which appeals to many students in normal times, but Garrett said the pandemic may have underscored the need for workforce relevance.
“When we look at ‘essential workers,’ a lot of those trades never saw a slowdown,” he said. “They still hired. They still have the need.” Automotive trades are always in demand, he added.
Even so, Jones’s pursuit of a degree at TCAT Nashville would perhaps be a surprise to his high school self. “I didn’t necessarily know what I wanted to do,” said Jones, now 26. “My biggest fear was to go to college, put in all that time and effort and then not use my degree.”
So, at 18, Jones went to work in warehouses, spending long days loading and unloading heavy boxes from tractor-trailers. But after just a few years, he realized he needed a job that would make him happier, cause fewer injuries and pay him more. Trade school for a career fixing cars seemed like the best route.
Robert Nivyayo’s priorities became clear a bit earlier in his education, when he realized he didn’t like high school. He spent most of his free time watching YouTube videos about fixing up cars before he was even licensed to drive.
Training in auto collision repair made sense for him, he said, because he could earn a credential while doing what he enjoyed, and without spending much time in the traditional classroom. Now 19, Nivyayo looks forward to the anticipated payoff when he gets a job in an auto shop. He can expect to make roughly $40,000 to $60,000 a year, depending on the shop, his instructor said.
“Every new day, I just get more motivated,” Nivyayo said.
Just a few doors down, Abbey Carlson is in the welding studio, wearing jeans with holes burnt through them and a cap to protect her hair. She’s the only woman in the nighttime welding class.
Carlson, now 24, had initially intended to attend a four-year college, but her plans were derailed by an addiction to alcohol. After dedicating herself to recovery, she decided to pursue a career in the trades.
After researching her options, she concluded welding would be the safest path to take as a young woman while also offering her the highest eventual earning potential. So far, she’s enjoying her time at TCAT Nashville.
“Finally, I feel like I’m going to accomplish something in life,” Carlson said.
Laura Monks, president of the Shelbyville branch of TCAT, said one of the reasons TCAT appeals to students is the school’s “co-op” program, which gives students who are nearing graduation the chance to work in their desired field a few days a week while also getting credit toward their diploma.
Brayden Johnson, 20, who is in his fifth trimester studying industrial maintenance automation, has had the chance to work as an electrical maintenance technician in a local factory that makes tubes for toothpaste. He’s working the night shift, which comes with a slight pay bump, and is earning about $26 per hour.
He said he hopes to stay in the job after he finishes at TCAT this spring.
At trade schools like TCAT Nashville, students are drawn to the hands-on design of the courses, Garrett said. “You need to get your hands on the equipment,” he said of the school’s philosophy. “You need to start building stuff, breaking stuff and then learn how to fix that stuff.”
The opportunity to get real work experience in TCAT’s co-op is an extra perk. The employer reports back to the student’s instructor so they know where the student is excelling and where they are struggling, so they can work on those weaknesses in class, Garrett said.
For Cheven Jones, the game plan is to transform his car by the time he graduates, and have fun while doing it.
“It’s school, and I take it seriously. But you know, you come here, and it just feels more like you’re at a shop hanging out with your homies all day,” Jones said. “It’s a good feeling.”
After he graduates, he hopes to get a job in an auto body shop.
And he says he’ll keep working until someday he can afford a red 1982 Nissan Skyline R31, RS Turbo, with bronze wheels — his dream car. Even if he can’t get one in perfect condition, at least he’ll know how to fix it up.
This story is part of Saving the College Dream, a collaboration between AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, and The Seattle Times, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.
The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.