Answering the call: Career center prepares students for workforce in high-demand jobs


McKenzie Career Center is doing its part to prepare students for the workforce. Students can earn certificates in nursing, construction and other careers while still in high school. Some students, especially those in the certified nursing assistant programs, entered the workforce at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic after receiving their certification.

When an executive order was in place in the fall of 2020 that only permitted school districts to operate on hybrid or virtual schedules, career and technical education students still attended in-person classes.

“Our hope was that our students would be able to earn those dual credits, because we didn’t know where COVID would be, so nursing students could earn their certificate and go to work,” McKenzie Career Center Director Mari Swayne said. “Students in other essential services could earn whatever they needed. This past year we were able to again get kids their certificates because we stayed open. We need them to come so they can get their certificates. State licenses require a certain ‘seat time,’ and that was why we wanted to make sure if the state said we could be open, we would be open. So, it paid off.

“I think for high school kids, that was a good lesson for them as they go into adulthood. If you do the preparation work, it’ll pay off for you.”

However, during the lockdown that began March 2020, students couldn’t attend in-person classes. That, in turn, led to a rush of students trying to receive certifications prior to starting college that fall.

“When we closed, right before, we started kids early on training for nursing, so we got that done right before the shutdown (in March 2020),” Swayne said. “As soon as we reopened in June (2020) for students to come back, we got those kids certified before heading off to college. Those kids from 2019-2020 who came back were able to earn their graduation diplomas and came back in July and earned their CNA certificate.”

When the career center was closed, the district donated its medical equipment to the Indiana National Guard to set up a field hospital should in case hospitals were overrun with COVID-19 patients.

“During that spring 2020, we had to close as everyone did, and so some of the things we did were in anticipation of the state’s field hospital (at the Indiana State Fairgrounds),” Swayne said. “We loaned our medical equipment to the state of Indiana to do the field hospital at the fairgrounds.”

The district donated its medical beds and equipment, which students used during their certification programs. The district also donated personal protection equipment to Community Hospital.

“They’re a partner with our district, so we gave them a trunk full of all of our stuff,” Swayne said.

A field hospital was never required, so the state returned the equipment when school opened in fall 2020.

“CTE was one of the only programs that was allowed to open full time, where some schools were under a hybrid schedule in the state,” Swayne said. “So, students could earn their certificates and dual credits. Our hope was that our students would be able to earn that because we didn’t know where COVID would be. So, nursing students could earn their certificates and go to work. Students in other essential services earn whatever they needed. We prepare them to go to work.”

Daija Gupton, an 18-year-old McKenzie Career Center graduate, earned her CNA at the center this year. She now attends the University of Indianapolis and is pursuing a nursing degree. Gupton said already being a CNA helps her with her college classes.

“It’s beneficial once you get into your nursing classes because you already have some background information before you even start,” Gupton said. “We are taught how to take blood pressure and respirations and stuff like that, so we kind of already know how to do that when it’s time to learn that in nursing school.”

Swayne credits the career center’s staff for its success.

“They have done a really great job of meeting the needs of our students where they were and getting them to where they needed to be,” Swayne said. “It definitely was a challenging couple of years (during COVID-19), but they just did an excellent job. They understood why we needed to be open and why those kids needed their certificates.”

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Brielle Vail, left, and Samantha Springer participate in a class at McKenzie Career Center.

Meeting workforce demands

McKenzie Career Center conducts a comprehensive local needs assessment to learn about the state’s future workforce demands.

“The federal government requires us to follow that for our funding for career and technical education, and basically what that means is, we need to provide programming that meets the demands of the state of Indiana, and specifically our region,” McKenzie Career Center Director Mari Swayne said. “At the very top of that list was health careers, and that was pre-COVID, and since then, obviously, health careers still were very high on that list.”

Other high-demand careers are construction, engineering, management, business and biomedical science.

“We offer a large amount of businesses courses as well (as) construction, and those are all full,” Swayne said.