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High school students find employers and colleges are trying to recruit them

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

College enrollment was down across the country even before the pandemic. But for the last two years, it's gotten worse. Same thing when it comes to the labor market - there aren't enough workers to fill jobs. In Wisconsin, higher education and industry are adapting by redefining what the path after high school can look like. Rich Kremer of Wisconsin Public Radio reports.

RICH KREMER, BYLINE: Public, technical and community colleges have borne the brunt of pandemic enrollment declines. Since fall of 2019, they've lost more than 700,000 students. The drop was around 16% among men and 10% among women. In Wisconsin, enrollment at state technical colleges dropped by 34% over the past decade. It's dropped more than 60% at two-year University of Wisconsin System campuses. That comes as Wisconsin employers say they're increasingly desperate to hire enough workers.

Here at Sheboygan South High, the lunchtime rush starts with a murmur and quickly engulfs the hallways at this school of 1,100 students. Guidance counselor Steve Schneider says the demand for workers has led to intense recruitment. With both employers and colleges knocking on high schools' doors, it falls to staff to clear a path in both directions.

STEVE SCHNEIDER: Let us, as the adults, take the brunt of the aggressiveness and filter that so that when you're presenting to our students and when we're talking with our students about these options, the students are still recognizing that they are in control of this choice.

KREMER: Those choices include a wide range of dual-enrollment classes, with students earning high school and college credit in fields like nursing, web design and skilled trades. The school also offers work-based learning courses, called co-ops, sponsored by local businesses. They pay students to work part-time while exploring career options.

In the city of Plymouth, recent graduate AJ Klug says he felt lost as he neared the end of his high school career. He thought about going to college, but was deterred by the prospect of taking on lots of student loan debt. Instead, he signed up for an 80-hour co-op with local car dealership Van Horn Automotive and felt at home working alongside master mechanics.

AJ KLUG: I got into the shop, and I said to myself, this is actually something that I enjoy doing. You know, I found something. I don't have to, you know, worry about it so much anymore.

KREMER: Klug is now working full-time with the dealership, earning good wages while taking tech college classes toward a certification. The dealership offered an apprenticeship program with $6,500 in scholarships for tools and tuition. Klug expects to graduate debt-free. Van Horn recruiter Shannon Laehn says the apprenticeship was created in 2020 to address looming retirements.

SHANNON LAEHN: So that we can start building these younger technicians and having them work with the master technicians to grow their skills so that we have technicians for our future.

KREMER: As businesses make inroads to high schools, the traditional pipeline from high school to college is changing. Wisconsin Technical College President Morna Foy says the career pathway model, in which employees seek additional education after starting work, represents the most significant change in the higher education.

MORNA FOY: It is now being driven by what students and employers, through their employees, need - not what's convenient for us, not what is comfortable for us as the education provider. But what do they need?

KREMER: Projections show the number of people hitting retirement age in many states will quickly outpace the number of working-age adults. What's been dubbed the silver tsunami is likely to drive more high school recruitment by businesses and even greater changes for colleges.

For NPR News, I'm Rich Kremer in Eau Claire.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAD LAWSON TRIO'S "A FAIR SKY IN WICHITA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.