Expanding technical education horizons: New director Stephanie Carter frames the future of CATEC

New CATEC director Stephanie Carter aims to help the larger community understand the value of technical learning and trade skills in the job market. / Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith New CATEC director Stephanie Carter aims to help the larger community understand the value of technical learning and trade skills in the job market. / Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

Each time Stephanie Carter searches for a skilled tradesperson to repair or rebuild something in her home, she’s reminded of why CATEC is important. “We know there’s a nationwide trend that shows trade skills on the decline,” she says, “even as there’s so much work that needs those skills.” In her new role as director of the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center, Carter aims to make technical learning barrier-free.

Jointly run by the city and county, CATEC offers a hands-on learning experience where high school students can take either morning or afternoon classes in technical tracks such as auto body repair, building trades, culinary arts, firefighting, and more, each pathway ending with a job-ready industry certification. “CATEC fills a niche for large, lab-based classes, so where it might be difficult for a high school to offer a lab where they repair cars, we’re able to offer that kind of space,” says Carter. Evening classes allow adult learners to retool or add skills as well.

After spending seven years coordinating career and technical education classes at Charlottesville High School and Buford Elementary, Carter has long understood the value of CATEC education, but knows that not everyone does. “We are constantly assessing the marketing and promotion of our programs, thinking about how we get folks to understand what it is that we do,” says Carter, who officially joined CATEC in July.

To that end, the school may offer ways for potential students to dip a toe in. “We’re working on an exploratory program so students can come and try things out, taking six weeks of engineering or agriculture, for example,” says Carter.

To further lower enrollment barriers, she plans to extend CATEC’s satellite program, established by her predecessor, which offers classes at local high schools so students can attend CATEC while not having to leave their regular school.

Eyeing today’s maker economy, which draws on both technical and traditional building skills, Carter sees a great opportunity to empower students to be able to start their own businesses.

“We could tap successful entrepreneurs in the community to come in and share their knowledge, to teach students how to leverage their trade skills into a really great career,” she says. “We may start informally this year in a club format, and I’d like to see us offer an entrepreneurship pathway, pulling in programs we already have running here.”

The combination of career education and high-schoolers is the sweet spot for Carter, who says the students are the best part of her job. “We emphasize the soft skills, like being professional, and the kids are really engaged when they’re here,” she says. “I know we can spark a fire in them and show them all of the possibilities in their career.”

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