PALMETTO -- At age 55, Carolyn Taylor decided she wanted more than a paycheck.
Four years out of high school, Megan Kotkowski said she hadn't figured out how to properly apply herself.
After moving from Nicaragua, Betsy Baltodano felt lost in a country where she couldn't yet speak the language.
And just one class shy of finishing, Alaa Frijah found himself in a financial bind, even though he was working 55 hours a week.
On Tuesday, the four student speakers at the Manatee Technical College graduation ceremony at the Bradenton Area Convention Center basked in their achievements. They were among 852 students who finished MTC programs this year despite all odds.
"You did it. Nobody else did it for you," Kotkowski told fellow graduates to a round of applause.
It was the first graduation ceremony for MTC -- formerly Manatee Technical Institute.
Their graduation comes at the right time, MTC director Doug Wagner said, with the average age of skilled workers in the United States right now at 56.
Each year, Wagner said,
600,000 skilled jobs go unfilled because of a lack of a highly trained workforce. Surveys show more than half the workforce is not happy in their field, he said.
"Here at MTC, our graduates enter the program they wanted, the program they're interested in," Wagner said.
For Taylor, that ended up being the law. Taylor graduated from the legal administrative specialist program.
"I decided a paycheck wasn't enough for me," Taylor said. "I needed an education."
With remnants of an accent still audible, Baltodano detailed her time in the English for speakers of other languages program. She's been in the United States for one year to marry the love of her life. .
At first, she was intimidated not being able to speak the language. Now, with the help of MTC, she said she feels more comfortable.
Frijah said he almost didn't make it to graduation. Financial hardship threatened to keep him from finishing the network support services program. Through a scholarship from the MTC Alumni Association, Frijah was able to to finish his work.
"I am grateful and honored," he said, adding the scholarship has encouraged him to continue to give back to the school and community after graduation.
MTC graduates become the "bedrock of society," according to Manatee County School District Superintendent Diana Greene, who said she is a big supporter of the school.
"MTC is the epitome of hands-on learning," Greene said.
When disasters strike, people don't look to superintendents or company presidents to lead. They look to police officers, firefighters and those in food services.
"We need the people who could get us up and running," Greene said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.