Though he’s only a junior at Turlock High School, Nicholas Hickman has already had his career mapped out for quite some time.
“I have pictures of me when I was a year old riding in the crop chopper, and when I was eight I was already driving forklifts and tractors,” Hickman said. “I’ve pretty much always been around equipment and driving.”
By age 12, Hickman began learning the fundamentals to help out at his grandpa’s chopping and custom farming business – a childhood journey that helped him learn to love agriculture, and most likely contributed to his first-place finish in the Agricultural Equipment Technology event at Thursday’s 33rd Annual Occupational Olympics and Career Exposition.
Sponsored by the Stanislaus County Office of Education, The Gallo Foundation, Modesto Junior College and the Education Foundation of Stanislaus County, the event first began in the 1980s has since given local students the opportunity to explore future careers and compete against other schools to see who has best mastered Career Technical Education skills like repairing a small engine, backing up a tractor and identifying different flowers.
“This is the only venue where you have kids who can compete in these CTE courses they’re taking at school, so it creates a lot of excitement,” SCOE Assistant Superintendent of Educational Options Scott Kuykendall said.
Nearly 700 students from 22 high schools participated in a total of 18 competitive events at the Occupational Olympics, and many were also able to speak with over 50 business and industry representatives in a day that highlights both the success and importance of CTE courses in the area.
Many trade jobs throughout the county are going unfilled because the local skilled workforce has diminished, Kuykendall said, and CTE courses give students the chance to learn skills that can help them become employed soon after high school.
“So much of the drive and focus on K-12 education has been academic and there’s a huge push for students to go on to a four-year college. In the meantime, you’ve got openings currently in the sheriff’s department, in the police departments, and that’s just law enforcement,” Kuykendall said. “People are aging out of these industries but there’s nobody in the pipelines. These CTE programs are becoming really popular because people understand that you can have a great job, earn a great living with benefits and it doesn’t take a four-year degree where you’re saddled with student loans at the end.”
Hickman was one of 16 THS students to place in an event at the Occupational Olympics – seven of which were first place finishes – and the school’s success was enough to earn it the Large School Overall Award. Pitman High School students Nestor Olivares and Alyssa DurJava earned their school first and third place in the Salad Preparation & Display event, respectively.
CTE courses like the culinary arts program at Pitman High School and the farm power class at THS allow students to thrive in subjects they’re passionate about, Hickman said, as well as prepare for potential careers after graduation.
“It really allows us to do something we like and excel in it, and there are diverse courses. There’s something for everybody no matter if you’re into business, agriculture or even finite math – it’s all there,” he said. “When you learn something that’s hands-on, you can apply it to the real world. By learning to operate machinery in class, I can go right out of high school and get a job in the operator’s union.”