The ability to take the concepts of an architect or an engineer and translate it into visual form through a computer program is an art. And Matt Leonard believes there are not enough of those artists who use a mouse and a keyboard working today.
Leonard, who has worked as a drafting technician at the Lititz-based architectural firm Derck & Edson for nearly 14 years, said a shortage of drafters who know how to use computer-aided design, or CAD, has created a real need for skilled workers in the field. To meet that need, Leonard said, schools such as his alma mater, YTI Career Institute in Springettsbury Township, are stepping up to help businesses and industries fill essential roles.
When Leonard took YTI’s 21-month CAD course, he did a three-month paid internship with the architectural firm Derck & Edson while still taking classes. YTI requires students do an internship. He has been with the firm ever since.
“Working in the industry at the same time as going to classes definitely helped solidify things that they were showing us and definitely gave real-world applicability to the things we were learning in school,” Leonard said.
According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, the U.S. currently has 30 million jobs that pay an average of $55,000 per year and don’t require a bachelor’s degree. Of those jobs, a large proportion are careers offered at trade schools, including computer systems specialists, dental hygienists, electricians and web developers.
Research by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states a CAD drafter can expect an average annual salary of $55,550 while carrying an associate’s degree. While the job outlook for the next decade is to remain steady at nearly 200,000 drafting positions, due to increased construction, the BLS said growth in the field will be tempered as engineers and architects are increasingly called on to do more of their own drafting work.
Leonard’s foray into drafting started when he was a student at Solanco High School, in southern Lancaster County, when he took two years of CAD elective courses. He said he had a basic knowledge of the computer program when he finally started taking classes at YTI, and it was a field he was naturally drawn to.
“It was a little bit creative, a little bit technical, a little bit of computers,” Leonard said. “It combined several of the things that interested me. And then in high school, taking those elective CAD courses, I very quickly saw it was something I could wrap my head around very easily and excelled at. It made sense to me.”
When he started YTI’s CAD program, it was an equal mix of students fresh out of high school and older students coming from other industries and looking for a career change. The CAD program is structured and designed for all levels of students, he said, including complete novices with little to no experience who could come out with the know-how to draft with a computer and have a new career.
While he knew he wanted to have a stable and worthwhile career, Leonard never saw himself taking college courses for four to five years with no clear idea of what major he would want to pursue. Being able to complete a program in 21 months, including three of those months dedicated to on-the-job experience, was appealing.
“This was something concrete that I could get in, get out and get on with life,” Leonard said.
Bryan Grim, a CAD instructor at YTI for 20 years, said the program has evolved significantly over time. The course delves into the theories behind why things are drawn the way they are in CAD for architects and engineers, not just learning how to use the software.
The program, Grim said, is designed to offer a broad understanding of the different disciplines wher CAD can be used, including mechanical engineering, 3-D mechanical design and civil drafting for infrastructure projects.
Grim said many technical schools only offer a nine-month course in CAD, which doesn’t allow for a broader understanding of the concepts of drafting.
“You don’t get into why things are detailed the way they are due to manufacturing practices or machining practices or construction practices,” he said. “And we’ve always gotten into that level of detail so people understand why things look the way they do in the drawings or why they should hold to a certain standard.”
One of the biggest challenges the CAD program has experienced has been the ever-decreasing enrollment despite positive job prospects. When he started teaching 20 years ago, Grim would have as many as 38 students in the program at a time with more on a waiting list.
Today, he typically has eight people taking a CAD class. The popularity of the program has waned even though jobs in CAD drafting are not hard to find, he said. He blamed a lack of awareness of the field by younger students coming out of high school.
“They know how to use apps on their phones, but I don’t think they’ve been exposed by someone saying, ‘Hey, this is the real world, and these needs are out there and you can get a rewarding career out of it,’” Grim said.
Getting the word out
YTI representatives have been looking at different ways to help prospective students to see the need in drafting, Grim said. They send teams into schools to talk to students about the program. An emphasis on internet-based recruiting was made more than a decade ago, he said, but school officials have decided to move away from online recruiting because students are already bombarded with too much information to digest.
Leonard, who serves on the advisory board of YTI, said one of the best ways to exhibit the importance of drafting and CAD design is to show students what can be created with a computer.
He pointed to one of his favorite projects as an intern. He was part of a team that helped design a park on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama. The project converted a hillside of housing units into a park for students.
Recently, Leonard helped create an indoor field house at Alvernia University in Reading. The scale of the project only hit him when he walked through the front door, seeing an entire running track under roof with giant girders making up the walls and the roof.
“It’s always a little strange to me when you draw things and you look at them every day on a computer or on paper,” he said. “I always lose track of scale. When you get out there and see how much you’ve changed something, or how big the things you’ve drawn are and how much impact they have on the sites is really cool to see.”