Trade school appeals to women to close widening skills gap
Jessica Rager was raised in Central City, a small borough of about 1,500 outside of Johnstown in western Pennsylvania.
From Harrisburg, it’s about a three-hour drive, but if people are still unsure of its exact location, Rager helps by giving a post-9/11 reference point.
“You know where Flight 93 came down? Yeah, I’m about 10 minutes from that,” she said.
It’s a rural, mountainous area. Thanks to her father, Rager spent most of her childhood outside on two wheels.
“Most kids get kites and fly kites around,” she said. “My dad got us dirt bikes.”
If the bike broke down, she had to fix it or she didn’t get to ride. After her first couple attempts at repairs, Rager realized that she enjoyed fixing the bike, maybe even more than riding it.
“To me it was more than ‘I got to fix that today.’ It was like ‘I love working on it’ and I wanted to learn more,” she said.
The repair work evolved into restoration. She and her brother traded away their first bike for another. In four months they dismantled that bike, cleaned and repaired its parts, and reassembled it, restoring it to a like-new condition. They sold if for a profit and bought a higher-end bike. All in all, they ended up trading their way from a 1993 bike up to a 2008 bike, she said.
Rager never lost her passion for motorcycles. Nearly a decade later, she is enrolled at YTI Career Institute’s Motorcycle Technology Center, located in a business park in Manchester Township, York County.
A scholarship winner, she will graduate in April and move one step closer to a job and the independence that comes with it.
YTI’s motorcycle technology program is geared toward students like Rager who want an alternative to the traditional four-year college route.
Most people working as or studying to become motorcycle technicians are male, but the staff at MTC has noticed a slight uptick in women. Rager is a standout in the overall class. Many of the female students are.
“It is on the increase, and the quality of the female student is really — I hate to say it — but sometimes it’s a better quality than our male students because they have to work so much harder in this industry,” said Angie Jones, MTC’s admissions coordinator.
Still, the uptick in female enrollment is slight, said Judd Hill, the associate program director. Four women are students at the center now.
But there is room for more. Each class — a new one starts each quarter — can hold 18 students. Rager’s class has less than 10.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for motorcycle mechanics was predicted to grow at a slower-than-average rate of 6 percent between 2014 and 2024; however, because of the increase in registered motorcycles, there’s still a need for mechanics.
The MTC classes also impart skills in motorcycle sales, enabling students to explore careers as parts-counter technicians and dealership technicians. It also helps students on the path to shop ownership.
“There is a huge skills gap in this country and college is not for everybody,” Jones said. “But education is for everybody. Once you decide what you are good at and what you like to do, if you can marry those things together, you have the makings of a perfect career.”
For students who started classes between March 2014 and February 2015 nationwide, the graduation rate is 65 percent. Of that number, 68 percent find jobs upon graduation, according to Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges. The median salary for a motorcycle mechanic is $32,000 according to salary.com.
The motorcycle course isn’t easy and the difficulty only escalates for older students, most of whom are enrolled in the evening classes. Full-time jobs, families and other financial obligations make it hard to adjust to the daily six-hour classes.
“To really get the most out of it, it should be done when you are still a kid. Before you are married, before you have a house, before you have all of these obligations,” Jones said. “Trying to make those skill changes at 40, 45 and 50 is difficult ... it never gets easier. It gets harder.”
The classes are held five days a week over a nine-month period split into three three-month terms. A new group of students starts every three months. Full tuition is $21,100.
The program is the only one of its kind in Pennsylvania and in the Mid-Atlantic region as a whole. Similar schools are located in Arizona, Florida and Ohio.
Rager worked with Jones for more than a year before the young woman was finally able to enroll.
“It was financially difficult for her to get here,” Jones said. “She worked at a gas station and (pet store) to save money. She kept in touch with us on a regular basis. When she walked through the door in July she had a huge smile on her face and I knew this is where she was supposed to be. She was ready.”
Rager was also given some financial help from a Harrisburg-based riding club for women, Divas Elite Social Riding. The club gave $500 scholarships to Rager and three other female students, said Jen Shade, the riding club’s founder and a fan of the MTC’s work.
When Rager isn’t in class, she works at a local Petco in York County. “I put in my time here, leave and then clock in there,” she said. “Then I sleep a little bit, eat a little bit in between, and do it all over again.”
She also has a tiny obsession with fish.
“I have three different aquariums. I have a crazy amount of fish,” she said.
The Petco job comes in handy. “The discount on the fish is undeniable,” she said.
After graduation, she plans to head back to Central City, hopefully getting into a shop and building up her skills. Rager hopes to open her own shop in about five years; she’ll be in her mid-20s by then.
Her instructor at MTC, Judith Winters, sees Rager succeeding.
“You can tell when you do this long enough who’s motivated and who will truly go into the industry,” said Winters, who has been teaching at MTC off and on for eight years. “And not just go into it, but stay. It’s a hard industry to be in, a hard industry to survive. Jess will be lifelong.”
Riders commit funds
Jen Shade is backing up her feelings about post-secondary education with the funds to support it.
Not everyone needs college or a four-year degree.
“When I was growing up, I did OK academically, but it wasn’t my forte,” said Shade, a member of the 105.7 The X Rocks People’s Morning Show team.
Students have choices when they graduate, including trade schools. The current skills gap in some industries, especially manufacturing, has shown the need for people who pursue those alternatives.
Shade is doing something about it as the founder of Divas Elite Social Riding Club, a group in Central Pennsylvania with 27 members who have a passion for motorcycles, riding and helping women and at-risk students.
The group recently gave away four $500 scholarships to female students pursuing schooling at YTI Career Institute’s Motorcycle Technology Center.
Not everyone wants to pursue a four-year college degree, she said. And it’s hard for many high school students to go against the grain of the four-year college route.
“All of the sudden kids feel lost or they feel they are not as good as … the other kids, and I never believed that 25 years ago. I believe in it less, now,” Shade said. “Go into work every day doing what you love. That should be everyone’s goal.”
The Divas group’s ultimate goal is to offer a full scholarship at some point, Shade said.
“What I love about YTI is they gear toward individuals who are going out and getting a job. Start your own shop,” she said. “It’s a super stellar program right here in Central Pennsylvania and I don’t think people realize how good it is.”