Changing Perceptions

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Waco TSTC provost, Beth Wooten, tackles the conversation on higher education and women's place in technical schools

If you’ve recently hired a plumber from Lochridge-Priest, had your electricity restored by Oncor, enjoyed breakfast at Daylight Donuts, received an MRI at Baylor Scott & White or flown on a commercial airline — chances are your experience was powered by a graduate of Texas State Technical College (TSTC).

With their mission to directly impact the economic development of Texas, TSTC is a vital tool in growing the state and local workforce which in turn attracts business and industry to the area. Equally as important is the college’s ability to empower its students to develop rewarding careers that lead to a greater quality of life.

“We offer technical programs for careers that are in high demand and we train the next generation of skilled technicians,” said Beth Wooten, newly-named provost of TSTC. “We have over 40 programs at all of our locations, but in Waco we have 24 programs on campus — everything from diesel equipment to technology to welding to cybersecurity to our culinary department. You may have heard the coined phrase, the ‘get a job college.’ That’s all we do. If a program that we teach does not lead to a high demand, high paying job, then we don’t offer it.”

As provost of the Waco campus, — TSTC has 10 campuses across the state — Wooten oversees all student learning, as well as serves as the face of the college in the community.

“My role is to oversee all of our faculty and faculty leadership — the folks that make the magic happen in the labs,” Wooten said. “But I’m also out in the community building relationships, building bridges, trying to bring about greater awareness of TSTC, increasing our brand value, all of those good things.”
Wooten began her career at TSTC in 2014 to establish a culture of philanthropy through the TSTC Foundation and in 2018 became the CEO. While still leading the foundation, she took on the title of associate vice chancellor which allowed her to focus on grants, career services and student recruiting.

TSTC is primarily funded by its commission rate — which is directly related to the job placement of its graduates. Wooten said TSTC consistently has a placement rate in the high 80s to low 90s.

“Because of the way that we’re funded by the state of Texas, we are very selective in what we offer,” Wooten said. “And it’s so critically important for us to listen to our industry partners, build those really strong relationships with them and provide training programs specifically for the needs of industry in the state of Texas.”

Wooten said TSTC’s funding model is all about accountability.

“Our local elected officials really appreciate that,” Wooten said. “We hold ourselves to the extreme when it comes to accountability because that’s our funding model and everything we do is in support of that.”

The Waco campus has students enrolled from all across Texas, Wooten said. She described the ideal TSTC candidate as someone who is good with their hands and someone who is not interested in the typical Monday through Friday, eight to five, sitting behind a desk job.

“What I love the most about what we do is that we really do change lives every day,” Wooten said. “Most folks don’t have a great awareness about the careers that TSTC graduates can have and the fields they can go into, the good money they can make and the kind of lives that our graduates can have once they leave.”

Wooten said graduates of the college’s welding, electrical line worker or electrical power and controls program — after just two years of school —can come out making upwards of six figures.

We actually have a lot of folks who have pursued a four-year degree, gone to a university, realized that they couldn’t find a job or that they just weren’t happy, and they come back to TSTC. They spend a year to two years, and then they’re making an incredible wage once they leave here.”

Wooten said she is encouraged to see students who want to change their life, move in a positive direction and go to work and have a meaningful career — and that includes women.

“It’s a male dominated school, but we are working to bring greater awareness to what women can do,” Wooten said. “We have lots of women that are in our welding programs that are in some of those heavy industrial trades. In our electrical power and controls program, you can learn about the grid, learn about power distribution, power delivery, those sorts of things. And females, because we tend to be a little bit more detail oriented, are very successful in that field.”

Wooten said about 15 to 20 percent of TSTC’s enrollment is women. The college is projecting a fall enrollment of about 3,500.

“There’s definitely lots of opportunity to increase our female enrollment,” Wooten said. “And honestly, that’s something that I hope to be able to do with my role, as well as with the other women leaders on our campus.”

Another impact Wooten hopes to make is changing the perception of technical education, in general.

“One of our biggest hurdles, quite frankly, is bringing about greater awareness to what a degree from TSTC can do for you,” Wooten said. “That means changing the perception of technical education.”

TSTC graduates can land six figure jobs and often with high profile companies like SpaceX — which signals a shift in the need for a significant part of the workforce to attend a technical college, rather than an academic one.

“We don’t love that word ‘trade school’ because there’s a negative connotation with it,” Wooten said. “I think that for the longest time when it comes to higher education, the conversation really only revolves around university. And we’re really trying to change the perception of technical education so that our high school counselors and our folks at K-12 are able to have a conversation around it and change that negative perception.”

And Wooten said she thinks the tide is turning toward technical education being a smart option for many people in society.

“With all of this information in the news about college debt, I think students are becoming wiser because they are really starting to question the return on investment,” Wooten said. “Some are even questioning pursuing any level of higher education at all and just going straight to work. It’s kind of an awakening. We’ve been fighting this battle at TSTC for decades and I think society is finally catching up.”

At TSTC graduation, Wooten said, when students walk across the stage, their name is announced — along with where they are going to work.

“Most of them have a job already,” Wooten said. “That’s one of my favorite things is being able to say not only are they graduating, but here’s where they’re going to work.”