Why did a straight-A Mankato student go into vo-tech ed?

A sucker for hands-on stuff

While visiting South Central College late last month, I ran into Cody McCall, a recent South Central grad who was hanging out in the shop for computer-integrated machining.

Cody is a heck of a case in Minnesota higher education — the star high school student who forgoes a four-year college degree to attend a local community and technical college.

Earlier this year, he graduated from South Central with a diploma in computer-integrated machining, and now works as a machine operator at a local company.

A star student who chose a community college?

How did that all come about?

When he was at Mankato East High School, he said:

“A lot of people were wondering why I liked (vocational-technical education), because I was a nerd who took (Advanced Placement) calculus and physics, and I liked those. My GPA was close to 4.0. But I was a sucker for hands-on, shop-class stuff.”

He took as many shop classes as he could — about 2-3 a year — in areas such as woodworking, materials processing, welding and fabrication.

What he noticed in high school shop class:

“There was more thought process involved than people gave it credit for. When you’re making something, you have to come up with a design and a process you’ll use to make it.”

And as graduation approached?

“I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I’ve had various career dreams over time. What pushed me into this field was a materials-processing class in which I took a tour of the computer-integrated machining shop at South Central. I toured the whole school and went back to (South Central instructor) Jeff Fischer. He let us play around in his computer lab, and showed us how software made machines run.”

So what is computer-integrated machining?

“You design something to make. You use use software to model that … and program machines to manufacture a prototype. It can be almost anything — making dies or molds for plastic parts or electrical socket boxes, for example. A final project was making a motorcycle frame. I’ve got a block of metal here, and six hours later, I’ve got the coolest-looking thing on the planet. On top of that, it’s a big brain-killer.”

(Side note: Here’s what another South Central student in the same field has made in the shop.)

Why not a four-year degree?

“Part of the decision was that money scares the heck out of me. With a two-year degree, I know machinists are always going to be needed, because stuff always needs to be made. My job would be secure, my education would not not take and arm and a leg, and it’s something I like.”

And how did his classmates and teachers react?

“Many were saying, ‘Do what makes you happy.’ But I had a lot of teachers telling me should I should have gone to a legit high-end university, a school with a good reputation. I heard a lot from friends who said that I shouldn’t be going to this tech school because I have these book smarts, that it was kind of a dumb move .. that I would be cutting myself short.”

And employment? Seemed like a breeze.

By the last month of South Central, even though McCall wasn’t really looking for a job yet, he said his adviser helped him get one. It’s at MICO, a company right across the street from South Central that makes brake-related parts for industrial giants such as John Deere and Caterpillar.

McCall told me:

“I probably have a better job than any of (my university-attending friends). I can say that my pay ($12 an hour plus hundreds a month in overtime) is not bad, especially for how young I am, and I get insanely good benefits.”

He lives with his parents, he said, because, “If I move out, I’m just wasting money.”

Would he encourage others?

“I think a lot of people don’t give enough credit to two-year degrees. Even if you have just a little interest in a technical field, try it out. I know those who have gone for a four-year degree and end up not liking it. With a two-year degree, it’s not as much of a waste.”

Any regrets?

“There was a guy a grade under me in AP class. He ended up going to Harvard, so he always made me feel slightly dumb. But it’s not like I’m going to go back to school, but I may to keep my options open as I get older. It’s an industry worth pursuing.”

  • BReynolds

    I applaud Mr. McCall for knowing what he wanted and going after it.  The stigma of technical education is a struggle that has no end in sight.  There are many students who have learned the hard way, attempting the four year degree and then realizing that they should have followed their heart.  A significant issue in this realm during this economy is when high schools decrease/eliminate their technical education course offerings and the students do not get a chance to experience what technical education is all about.  I am always disheartened when I hear students say that someone has encouraged them to get a “better” degree.  What can be better than learning a skill, mastering that skill and having a career in a field that you love?  Way to go Mr. McCall.

    • Anonymous

      Good point about the high school cutbacks. I’ve heard an executive or two from manufacturing complain about that. I’m curious about whether those cuts have ever been measured.

  • Jellycupcakes

    I think it’s awesome that he followed his interests.  I was also a straight A student in high school and went to school for engineering.  Now I have 20 years of student loans and a job I’m not really interested in.  If I could do In the end I wish I would have become a seamstress…  Sewing is like engineering.  All about problem solving and design. 

  • Jellycupcakes

    I think it’s awesome that he followed his interests.  I was also a straight A student in high school and went to school for engineering.  Now I have 20 years of student loans and a job I’m not really interested in.  If I could do In the end I wish I would have become a seamstress…  Sewing is like engineering.  All about problem solving and design.