Vocational high schools have for decades been a gateway to trades such as carpentry, electrical work, and automotive repair. Now, as the labor market shifts into new kinds of occupations — biotechnology, engineering, and robotics — many Massachusetts schools are overhauling their buildings and programs to keep up.
More than half of the state’s regional vocational high schools have applied for, started, or completed major construction projects since 2011, according to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
It’s the biggest building boom since the era when most of the schools were built, according to Dave Ferreira, communications director at the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators.
“From 1968 to 1975, an awful lot of them were built,” said Ferreira, who has worked in vocational education for most of his career. “That means that all of those are relatively old for building standards.”
Late next year, Minuteman High School in Lexington plans to open a $145 million state-of-the-art school with flexible space to adapt to future technology. Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton has launched an $85 million project to upgrade its infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School in Wakefield is exploring the feasibility of building a new school.
“Truth be told, our vocational and technical schools in Massachusetts all need investment,” said Ed Bouquillon, superintendent of Minuteman, which was built in 1975 “during a time when they didn’t imagine the type of equipment and curricula we would be teaching here.”
Of the state’s 26 regional vocational high schools, 15 have either applied or embarked on major construction projects since 2011, according to the school building authority. Four have been completed, two are under construction, and four have been invited since 2016 to enter the MSBA’s pipeline for funding. Five others have applied to enter the pipeline.
Shovels hit the ground for the new Minuteman High School in June 2017. The building is slated for completion in fall 2019 and athletic fields the following spring. The MSBA is reimbursing almost 45 percent of the bill.
The new Minuteman will be smaller than the old building, but with its modern design, will have better space for its trade programs, Bouquillon said.
Vocational and technical programs in related fields will be centralized in one area and share some classroom and shop spaces, all designed for project-based learning. For example, advanced manufacturing, engineering and robotics automation, and metal fabrication will share a space.
Horticulture and plant science will share some classroom space with environmental management, but each will get its own greenhouse.
Minuteman’s new building is also designed for safer, more efficient public access. The day care, culinary arts and hospitality, and multimedia engineering programs all offer services to the public as a part of student learning.
The building is flexible down to the infrastructure, Bouquillon added. The core power, Internet, and other piping will be deliberately accessible for the next time the school decides to move some things around — which is not expected to be any time soon. Wiring in the automotive shop will be exposed — safely, of course — so that the shop can continue to evolve with modern technology.
This type of flexibility, administrators said, is important to the longevity of the schools. Vocational education in Massachusetts is more than 100 years old, Ferreira said, but is constantly changing to suit the labor market.
He said architects are designing new schools to be as flexible as possible to allow room for the trade classrooms to adjust to new jobs and technology.
“The evolution of vocational programs took place over many years,” he said. “I think most architects today are making them as flexible as possible.”
Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton is working on some long-needed updates to the building’s heating systems, electrical, plumbing, and underground piping. Those systems go through a lot in a vocational school because of the heavy use of industrial equipment, Superintendent/Director James Quaglia said.
The cost of the project is about $85 million, and the MSBA is reimbursing almost 56 percent.
The MSBA doesn’t usually include much funding for equipment, Quaglia said. However, in this case the school will get a new walk-in freezer and cooler for the culinary department, a 30-ton press for metal fabrication, and a new exhaust hood for automotive technology.
“It’s about replacing and upgrading systems that are necessary to carry on vocational technical education,” Quaglia said.
Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School in Wakefield, which opened in 1970, was approved to enter the MSBA’s pipeline in December 2017. By spring 2019, a feasibility study will be completed to determine the most “cost-effective and educationally appropriate” design, according to the MSBA website.
Superintendent Dave DiBarri said district leaders are looking at an entirely new school for better efficiency, a higher student capacity, and better space for trade and academic classes.
“The school is very old,” he said. “The capital improvements that we would need to keep the building running for the next 20 years would probably be equivalent to building a new school.” A new school is usually eligible for more state reimbursement, he added.
Northeast Metro accepted 330 new students last year, and the waitlist still had more than 390 hopeful students on it, DiBarri said.
It will be unclear until after the feasibility study exactly what the project will look like or how much it would cost. In addition to passing muster with the state, the project also must be approved and partially funded by the school’s member communities.
While cost could be a hurdle, he said, “I think there’s a general consensus that there’s a need for a new building, and a need for vocational education in general.”
Meanwhile, other vocational schools are trying to start the process.
Four high schools in the region have submitted applications with the MSBA for “core” projects over the past two years: Greater Lawrence Technical in Andover; South Shore Regional Technical in Hanover; Tri-County Regional Vocational Technical in Franklin; and Whittier Regional Vocational Technical in Haverhill. Lynn Vocational Technical Institute applied for “accelerated repair projects,” targeting the infrastructure and systems of the building.
There’s a reliable demand, administrators said, for educational programs that provide students with pathways to successful careers.
“I think a big reason why you see people gravitating toward technical schools is because it’s no longer a guarantee you’re going to get a job” after college, Quaglia said.
Morgan Hughes can be reached at email@example.com.