A shift back to the trades

At a steel factory dwarfed by the adjacent Auto Club Speedway at Fontana, California, Fernando Esparza is working toward his next promotion.

Esparza is a 46-year-old mechanic for Evolution Fresh, a subsidiary of Starbucks that makes juices and smoothies. He’s taking a class in industrial computing taught by a community college at a local manufacturing plant in the hope it will bump up his wages.

It’s a pretty safe bet. The skills being taught here are in high demand. That’s in part because so much effort has been put into encouraging high school graduates to go to college for academic degrees rather than for training in industrial and other trades that many fields like his face worker shortages.

Now California is spending $6 million on a campaign to revive the reputation of vocational education, and $200 million to improve the delivery of it.

“It’s a cultural rebuild,” said Randy Emery, a welding instructor at the College of the Sequoias in California’s Central Valley.

Standing in a cavernous teaching lab full of industrial equipment on the college’s Tulare campus, Emery said the decades-long national push for high school graduates to get bachelor’s degrees left vocational programs with an image problem, and the nation’s factories with far fewer skilled workers than needed.

“I’m a survivor of that teardown mode of the ’70s and ’80s, that college-for-all thing,” he said.

Getting the word out

This has had the unintended consequence of helping flatten out or steadily erode the share of students taking vocational courses. In California’s community colleges, for instance, it’s dropped to 28 percent from 31 percent since 2000, contributing to a shortage of trained workers with more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree.

Research by the state’s 114-campus community college system showed that families and employers alike didn’t know of the existence or value of vocational programs and the certifications they confer, many of which can add tens of thousands of dollars per year to a graduate’s income.

“We needed to do a better job getting the word out,” said Van Ton-Quinlivan, the system’s vice chancellor for workforce and economic development.

This excerpt comes from The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

High schools and colleges have struggled for decades to attract students to job-oriented classes ranging from welding to nursing. They’ve tried cosmetic changes, such as rebranding “vocational” courses as “career and technical education,” but students and their families have yet to buy in, said Andrew Hanson, a senior research analyst with Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Federal figures show that only 8 percent of undergraduates are enrolled in certificate programs, which tend to be vocationally oriented.

The United States has 30 million jobs that pay an average of $55,000 per year and don’t require a bachelor’s degree, according to the Georgetown center. People with career and technical educations are actually slightly more likely to be employed than their counterparts with academic credentials, the U.S. Department of Education reports, and significantly more likely to be working in their fields of study.

(Below, an informational video about California community colleges and technical education)

At California Steel Industries, where Esparza was learning industrial computing, some supervisors without college degrees make as much as $120,000 per year and electricians also can make six figures, company officials said.

Skilled trades show among the highest potential among job categories, the economic-modeling company Emsi calculates. It says tradespeople also are older than workers in other fields — more than half were over 45 in 2012, the last period for which the subject was studied — meaning looming retirements could result in big shortages.

High schools and community colleges are the keys to filling industrial jobs, Hanson said, but something needs to change.

“You haven’t yet been able to attract students from middle-class and more affluent communities” to vocational programs, he said. “Efforts like California’s to broaden the appeal are exactly what we need.”

Aside from marketing the programs differently and making them simpler to find and apply for, California is trying to ease the process through which individual campuses can add new programs that could help local businesses. If a region needs respiratory therapists, for example, community colleges will be able to avoid some of the red tape that previously hampered their flexibility to train new therapists.

“We definitely wanted to get out of the colleges’ way,” Ton-Quinlivan said.

Polishing their image

The industrial course in which Esparza is enrolled is run by nearby Chaffey College through the community college’s InTech Center, a partnership with California Steel and other local manufacturers. At its completion, Esparza will have new skills he hopes will translate into a promotion and a raise of $4 or $5 per hour.

Like his classmates, Esparza, who starts work at 6 a.m., is looking at the class as a moneymaker for him.

“It feels very comfortable for me,” he said. And then, like many Californians, he reflects on his commute. “I don’t even have to catch a freeway to get here. How can it get better?”

But it can get better in California, where 30 percent of all job openings by 2025 — more than a million jobs — will require some post-high school education, according to the state’s community college system. Some on the industry side of the equation say that while colleges should have spent the past few decades building tighter bonds with local companies, those companies share the blame for vocational education’s tattered reputation.

Residents who have watched manufacturing companies relocate overseas may have not wanted to encourage their children to learn manufacturing-related skills, said Sam Geil, a Fresno, California, business consultant and adviser to the San Joaquin Valley Manufacturing Alliance.

“It doesn’t help when industry is moving out and laying people off,” Geil said. “It’s the relationship that industry has with the community. Industry could do a better job communicating.”

Read the full story.

About the Author

Matt Krupnick / The Hechinger Report
is a freelance reporter and editor who contributes regularly to the New York Times and the Hechinger Report.