Dr. Mary Cantrell, director of Manatee Technical Institute, says there's a labor crisis in fields that do not require a four-year college degree. It's time, she insists, for parents, students, educators and politicians to rethink the respect they give to technical education. With 17,000 students, including about 300 high school enrollees on two campuses, MTI offers diplomas that range from applied technology to paramedic training to licensing certificates in industries such as construction. While such jobs often pay high wages, they're often low on the prestige scale. To make matters worse, technical institutes are often overlooked and underfunded by the Florida Legislature.

You once said, "No parent wants their child to become a plumber." Why do you think such a stigma has been attached to technical education versus four-year college learning? After World War II, when the greatest generation was producing the greatest number of children at one time, President Harry Truman announced, 'We're going to give our children a better America. Every child will be able to go to college.' And that became the symbol of success. It's in our genes now.

Do you think this stigma can be dispelled? In Europe, if you want to be an apprentice, there's not a stigma. Here, 3 percent of students go to technical schools. I don't know if I'll ever change the theory of, 'My kid needs to go to college.' My theory is: We need to change our name to Manatee Technical College and then kids can come to college. And if, when they finish here, they want to get an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree, they can do that. To most people right now, this school is for somebody else's child.

What percentage of students who attend technical schools come out with jobs? When a person leaves here, we do not guarantee employment, because you never know what's going to happen to the market. We pride ourselves that our placement rate is about 90 percent, and most of our graduates, the second year out, are probably making $50,000 or more. For instance, to become an emergency medical technician, you have to put in 250 hours; you can do that in two and a half months. The starting salary here in Manatee County for an EMT is $28,000, and you only work 10 days a month. Say you want to be a paramedic. Now your salary's jumping into the $30s. Say you would like to be a firemedic. Starting salary in the state of Florida is $42,000. Or say you want to be an aeromedic. They work 24 hours and are off 72, and they make six figures.

Do you believe people need a four-year degree to excel in corporate America? What college can give you that we really can't is that cultural thing. We can give you the skills. But if you want to go up that corporate ladder, you need to talk the way they talk and you need to look the way they look. Still, of the 59 percent of all [Florida high school graduates] that went to college at last count, 69 percent didn't make it through the first year.

What field has the greatest need for technically educated employees? In your house, you've probably got a stove, refrigerator. What happens when it breaks? You call somebody. How old are these people? They're men in their 60s, usually. The industry is so desperate right now for appliance repair people. They need boat builders. Nurses are in high demand, medical assistants, EMTs, paramedics.

Do you have difficulty recruiting students from area schools? I wish the high schools were a better recruiting place for us. We have better luck with people who have already wasted a semester in college. Our average age is 32.

What are the major challenges the school is facing now? I have not bought equipment since 2001. The perception is that we have so much money. We don't. I was so hurt when, legislatively, we ended up in such bad shape for next year. The Senate in Tallahassee said, 'No new money for tech centers.' In state government it seems the first thing you lose are funds for vocational programs and the second thing you lose are the arts. Also, when we try to hire teachers who could be working as EMTs out in the field, teaching cuts their salary in half. They don't want to come work for me. At the same time, we try to keep the classes affordable. The ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages] program is free. Next year, the tuition for our job prep class is $1.85 an hour, and about 15 cents of that is from scholarship money. We get grants. The Kiwanis Club gives us $10,000 a year, but we're struggling.

Is there ever a shortage of jobs in technical fields? No. There's always an empty chair at the buffet. When I first came here, our criminal justice program had one class of 12 students. Now we do five academies in a year. In the paramedic program, we had one program per year with no more than 20 students. Last year, we had 150 paramedic students. When you have construction skills in any area, you can get a job. Some companies are really hurting. They cannot get skilled laborers. To me, we are an economic investment for the growth of this county. It's important that people go to college. But it's also important that your toilets flush, that your brakes stop your car. How can one be more important than the other?

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