Dixie Technical College’s biggest problem? Growth.

The school has grown from two dozen students in 2001 to nearly 1,500 students today.

(Dixie Technical College) A precision machining class at Dixie Technical College in St. Geoge.

St. George • One of Dixie Technical College President Jordan Rushton’s favorite stories about the school’s 2017 move to Tech Ridge is the one about the pilots who tried to land their airplanes on campus on two separate occasions.

As Rushton tells it, students looked on as one pilot — not realizing that the old St. George Airport had closed down in 2011 and the site was now a campus — tried to land his plane on the then semi-intact runway atop the mesa and damaged his small craft.

[Related: The name ‘Dixie’ lives on in St. George at a second school]

“The other landed and realized, ‘Ooh, this is not the airport’ and quickly flipped his plane around and took off,” said Rushton, who was named the college’s third president in September.

As amusing as such stories are, the pilots’ misperceptions about the campus that overlooks St. George serve as a metaphor for the misunderstanding many have about technical colleges.

“You’ve got people that look at technical education as ‘if all else fails, if I can’t get anything else to work, I’ll go to one of those dirty tech colleges and work in a factory for the rest of my life,’ " Rushton said.

As antiquated as such thinking is, Utah Higher Education Commissioner Dave Woolstenhulme says it still lingers.

“For many years, technical education has been seen as less than a four-year degree,” he said. “But we now know that we need both — not only the four-year degrees but also the certificates that our technical colleges offer.

“We all need a plumber, heating and air-conditioning technicians and the skill sets such people bring,” Woolstenhulme continued. “And these occupations are not less than those that require a college degree, they are just different — and they are very valuable to the economy.”

Besides, the state’s eight technical colleges — as Woolstenhulme and others point out — are nothing like Utah’s “vo-ag,” short for vocational-agricultural, institutions of yesteryear.

Dixie Technical College, for example, started out in 2001 with little more than two-dozen students enrolled in three programs — office management, diesel technology and construction technology. Today, there are nearly 1,500 students who have 25 accredited programs to choose from in six strategic core areas — computer technologies, construction technologies, health care sciences, industrial programming, transportation technologies and service professionals, the last having to do with culinary arts.

Moreover, within those core areas are a number of high-tech and white-collar fields of study such as information technology, app development and nursing, just to name a few. Even in what people traditionally view as blue-collar fields, like welding, students often function more as computer technicians to program machines to do the work, according to Woolstenhulme.

Rushton said technical colleges also cost less and students transition much quicker into the workplace. For example, he said, tuition at Dixie Technical College varies but ranges from $500 to $6,500 and averages roughly $3,500 — and that is to complete an entire program. Conversely, the amount required for just one semester at Utah Tech University is $2,633 for in-state students and $8,418 for non-Utah residents.

Programs at the college can be completed, on average, in one year, compared to the two or four years required to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, respectively, at a traditional university. Moreover, graduation rates — students earning a certificate — at Dixie Technical College hover above 80%, and roughly 90% of graduates are placed in a job with industry.

“If you come here to get educated, you can pretty well know that you’re going to have a job offer prior to graduation,” Rushton said. “And you’re going to have a job for the rest of your career as long as you want one because you are going to be in demand. That’s a fun product to sell.”

Take the 18-month app development program, for example. The college just graduated its first cohort of a dozen students from the new program, which costs $4,500.

“They were getting job offers, one right after the other,” Rushton said. “In some cases, they were receiving six-figure job offers. That’s remarkable!”

Crimson Cliff High School senior Kaden Mertz, a concurrent enrollment student studying app development at the college, said he is sold on the program.

“I’ve wanted to get into the programming industry since I was in elementary school,” he said. “It’s evident today that you don’t need to go to a traditional university and get into a lot of debt to get into computer programming. You are better off getting a more experience-based, quicker-paced education like you get here because the industry is based more on what you can do rather than whether or not you have a bachelor’s degree.”

Cost was a major factor in Santa Clara resident Collin McCoy’s decision to leave Utah Tech University and enroll at Dixie Technical College.

“I didn’t like paying for classes that really didn’t apply to what I was planning to do for my future career,” the information technology student said. “It’s nice to learn language, math and those other things, but it was costing me several hundred more dollars and using up more of my time. Even a full-year program here is about half the price of a single semester at [Utah Tech],” he said.

State education officials say tech education is not only a boon to students but also greatly benefits Utah’s economy, which is being hindered by a tight labor market. Utah’s unemployment rate in December was 2.2%; anything less than 5% is considered full employment.

Utah has about 40 unemployed workers for every 100 open jobs, making it one of the states with the most severe labor shortages, according to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce report published last year. State education officials say there is also a skills gap between the job requirements of industry and the number of trained students to fill them.

Woolstenhulme said 40% of Utah high school graduates, within three years after earning their diploma, do not go on to higher education of any kind because many of them are not aware of all the options available to them.

“They may not want to sit in a classroom … and become an accountant, engineer or scientist but have a desire to learn a skill that leads to a great career and helps provide for their families,” he said. “That’s exactly what a technical education does.”

To aid students in learning the necessary skills to transition quickly into a good-paying job, Rushton explained, the school often employs industry professionals with real-world experience rather than traditional teachers. Each program at the college has an industry advisory committee of local employers who ensure what is taught dovetails with the needs of local industry, which helps explain the college’s high placement rate.

Still, Dixie Technical College is not without challenges. Aside from lingering misperceptions about technical education, the school has to contend with the challenge of growth. The St. George metro area has been one of the nation’s fastest-growing metro areas over the past several years. That growth is reflected in the college’s student enrollment, which is increasing by about 20% year over year. Rushton said it is a challenge to keep pace with growth while maintaining the quality of the college’s programs.

For example, five years after moving to its present campus with three buildings, the college is running out of space. Rushton said college officials are asking the Legislature to appropriate another $50 million to erect a 75,000-square-foot building to house the college’s construction and computer technology programs.

Despite the challenges, Rushton said he finds technical education infinitely more rewarding than the hospitality industry in Park City, where he worked more than a decade ago.

“I quickly realized that making sure wealthy people had all of the proper arrangements and skis and all those sorts of things was not contributing to the world the way I wanted to,” he said.

Now, working in technical education, “I can have a powerful impact on people’s lives … That’s pretty cool to get to come to work every day and be involved in something like this.”