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How the Bloomington Area Career Center adapts to help teens explore today's careers

Bloomington Area Career Center
Bloomington Area Career Center
Bloomington Area Career Center students in the Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement program learn how to lift fingerprints.

The pandemic sparked some professional soul-searching for American workers – about where they work, working conditions, and whether to stay on their current path.

The students at the Bloomington Area Career Center were ahead of the curve.

The 700 students at BACC come from high schools around McLean County, including Unit 5 and District 87. If accepted, they spend part of their school day at BACC taking classes. They choose from 17 programs such as welding, cosmetology, health careers and medical terminology, and EMT and fire science.

“I have a lot of admiration and respect for our students,” said Bryce Hansen, BACC’s assistant principal who will take over as director this summer when Tom Frazier retires. “When I was 16 and 17, I wasn’t thinking as far ahead as they are. A lot of our kids are really forward-thinking and wise and really want to figure out what they want to do and get ahead of that.”

For most BACC students, that future includes college. About two-thirds of BACC students go on to a two- or four-year college. BACC programs are largely free for students, and most offer dual college credit. Last year, BACC students earned 1,614 in dual credit hours, saving them collectively about $337,875 in college tuition.

“A lot of people, when they think of career and technical education, they think of kids who are going straight to the workforce – blue-collar type of jobs. And that’s definitely a part of what we do,” Hansen said. “But we try to evolve and stay current with the what the economy is demanding and what jobs are available.”

BACC staff stays in close contact with business and industry and attends professional conferences so they can adapt to changing needs, said Hansen. In the Automotive Technology program, the auto shop now has an electric vehicle “trainer” that students can work on. About half of the instructors come to BACC straight from industry, like the full-time Bloomington firefighters who teach on their days off in the EMT Basic and Fire Science program.

“We never want to get stale. The students we’re teaching now will be entering the workforce a couple years from now. And so, if we’re teaching them on something from 2007, by the time they’re in the workforce in 2027, that’s 20 years old. They’re not using that anymore,” Hansen said.

For some, the BACC is about career exploration. Some will go straight into the workforce. BACC students together earned 452 industry-recognized certifications last year, through the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), Culinary Arts, Construction Trades, and other programs.

After many decades of a four-year college degree as the be-all, end-all goal of K-through-12 education, that perception is changing. A new state law will even require that school districts do more to make students aware of their career and technical education options, like the trades.

“I came to the realization that my generation, the way we were raised up, in my small little hometown, they painted it as, ‘You can either go to college or you can go work at McDonald’s.’ That’s how it was sold to me,” Hansen said. “I’m glad I went to a four-year college. But I’ve opened my eyes to there being more options for kids and other paths to get there. Maybe a kid wants to get a CNA license with us, and then go to work at a hospital that’ll pay for them to get their bachelor’s.”

BACC’s biggest challenge, Hansen said, is wanting to grow and expand but being limited by physical space constraints and difficulty finding qualified teachers for certain programs.

BACC has found creative solutions in the past. While many BACC programs are housed in a building shared with Bloomington High School, some of its classes take place at Heartland Community College in Normal. BACC’s high-demand Welding program, for example, offers classes at both Heartland and at Tri-Valley High School in Downs.

“Our wait list for Welding is humungous. We don’t have a lot of places to put welding booths, and we don’t have a lot of people who can teach high school kids to weld,” Hansen said. “That’s the biggest challenge we have right now: How do we keep expanding and serving more students?”

For high schoolers looking to enroll at BACC, the 2023-24 application is now available. It’s on a first-come, first-served basis and usually closes in March.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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