The Aiken County Career and Technology Center originally was called the Aiken County Vocational Center when it opened in 1967.

Over time, the word “vocational” developed a bad rap, and that’s unfortunate, said Career Center Director Brooks Smith, who spoke at an Aiken Rotary Club meeting on Monday.

“What we do in our mission is vocational,” he said. “It’s still the same about engaging students with educational experiences that truly are real-world. Somewhere, it became a word associated with “less than” and for students not going to a four-year college.”

The Career Center, located on U.S. 1 across from Aiken Technical College, offers a wide range of programs that serve high school students from Aiken High, South Aiken, North Augusta, Midland Valley and Silver Bluff.

The coursework includes computer-aided design, health science, fire safety, computer technology, digital media, automotive technology, criminal justice, welding, cosmetology and others.

Students recognized as “completers” at Career Center graduation can join the workforce or can enroll at two-year and four-year colleges.

Smith cited a partnership with Tognum Americas’ MTU plant in Graniteville, which has initiated an apprentice program for Career Center students. Five students started as juniors last year, and several more will join them this fall.

“We’re unique doing these registered apprenticeships with high school students,” Smith said. “Perhaps businesses and industry are fearful of young kids, but they can get them while they are more pliable before they learn bad work habits when they’re older.”

He drew applause from Rotary members after noting that 98 percent of seniors who attended part of their day at the Career Center this year went on to graduate. The enrollment has grown dramatically in recent years.

Generally, participation has been limited to juniors and seniors. Now about 250 sophomores can visit the Career Center every day and get an introduction to programs that might interest them. Smith has expanded that effort even more this fall – allowing 10th-graders to try out six programs during the school year.

Again, he emphasizes the value of “vocational” study. Accountants, doctors, teachers and welders are practicing their vocations.

When the Career Center celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2017, Smith will cite the skill opportunities students get in high school and how they are related to jobs.

Courses do evolve, of course; digital media could not he been imagined in the 1960s. Neither could computer-aided design, yet through mechanical drawing classes, people were still designing things that were going to be manufactured.

“Slide rules put a man on the moon,” Smith said. “We have infused our current technology with real-world opportunities. While we have changed the name of the vocational center, the essence is still the same.”