In the basement workshop of Parkway West Career and Technology Center, Zack O'Connell takes a blow torch to a piece of metal.
He enjoys turning the metal from gray to orange, and watching it slowly separate until the new piece drops to the floor with a thud.
His grandmother is just glad that the work probably will land O'Connell, 16, a well-paying job without burdensome college spending.
"I know a lot of college students who have gone ... for four years and they end up working at restaurants or in retail," said Sharon Palitti of Coraopolis. "I think it's a good idea for Zack to go into a trade, especially because he's good at it."
Welding is new this year at Parkway West in North Fayette, one of several such schools trying to keep up with the rapid evolution of the business world. Once known as vocational-technical schools and regarded as a last resort for students without potential, these career schools want to be seen as the best chance to prepare students for a changing economy and close the country's employment gap.
Despite unemployment rates at a five-year high, a lack of skilled workers is costing U.S. companies billions. Pittsburgh's tradesmen are aging, too, local business leaders said, and recent state reforms have forced technical schools to do more work at keeping their programs aligned with local needs.
Attempts to modernize began during the past 10 years, as leaders realized they needed to integrate more technology into programs to prepare students for manufacturing jobs that had become more complex. At the same time, they've had to fight a culture that pushes students toward liberal arts colleges.
"Culturally, college equals success," said Darby L. Copeland, Parkway West's assistant director. "A lot of traditional high schools pride themselves on how many students are college-bound. But what we don't hear about is five years after that."
Welding is one of three programs the school has added in four years. It had welding about 20 years ago, but cut it because of low enrollment, Copeland said. Now, with the work force nearing retirement, welding is on the state's list of high-priority occupations.
While about a fifth of all occupations need a four-year college degree, a quarter need a two-year degree, according to the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board.
Regardless, some families can be appalled at the idea of their children choosing a technical school, and often fight to keep their children from doing so, technical school educators said.
At the four regional technical schools in Allegheny County, students are bused from their home districts for part of the day. McKeesport Area and Pittsburgh run their own technical schools. …