Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
Plumbers and mechanics are a lot closer to the good life than many of us, but the high school programs that train these skilled workers are in the poorhouse.
Thursday, February 15, 2001
Tool and Dye: Monterey hairdresser Karen Dean makes a tidy living, calls her own shots and keeps her clients in line with an appointment book that fills up weeks in advance.Karen Dean''s thriving business occupies a quaint Cass Street bungalow in the heart of Monterey''s Doctor Row. Inside the converted home, her clients wait patiently on bright floral chairs in a perfumed atmosphere. New Age music wafts about the waiting room, lulling patrons into the sense that they''ve momentarily entered a higher plane of existence.
Dean paid attention to detail when decorating her workplace. When she moved here four years ago, she insisted that the floor refinishers sand the hardwoods twice. After the first sanding, the floorboards just weren''t even enough for her detail-oriented taste. Frivolous, perhaps, but in this businesswoman''s mind, everything had to be perfect for her deserving clientele.
Dean prides herself on her promptness and expects the same from her clients. Arrive late and you''ll hear about it. But if, by chance, Dean is running a few minutes over, nobody complains. Her clients have waited four to six weeks for an appointment to avail themselves of her expertise, and they''ll pay top dollar for an hour of her time.
Dean''s not a doctor or a therapist or an accountant. The credentials that hang on her wall come from Victor Valley Beauty College. Dean''s a hairdresser. And she''s making a damn good living at it.
"It''s a great living," says the single mom, who pulled down $150,000 last year. "Having this trade has afforded me the ability to come to the Monterey Peninsula and raise my daughter here."
All the same, not many parents today want their kids to grow up to be hairdressers or auto mechanics or electricians. Most have loftier expectations for their children. They want them to be doctors, lawyers or corporate executives. They''ll settle for teachers, middle managers or journalists.
What parent wouldn''t want a kid to earn the prized college diploma? On average, a college degree equals higher salaries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, college grads earned 61 percent more than their non-matriculating counterparts in 1998.
But lost within that statistic is the fact that many workers making their careers in the trades bring home fat paychecks and enjoy personally satisfying careers. Moreover, today''s--and tomorrow''s--job market demands technically skilled workers.
Only about 20 percent of California''s graduating high school students go on to college, while about 25 percent of U.S. jobs require a bachelor''s degree. By the year 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that only 20 percent of the jobs in the U.S. will require a bachelor''s de-gree, and a mere 1.5 percent will require an advanced degree. Seven years from now, what will be needed in 62 percent of American jobs are technical skills.
Despite the trend toward skilled labor, high school career training programs have atrophied, and voc ed advocates say the state is worsening the situation by treating "vocational education" like an oxymoron.
"Voc ed classes are disappearing like crazy," says Brad Walker, executive director of the Automotive Service Council of California. "A huge part of it is the social stigma, and I don''t believe the Department of Education in California is helping the situation. In fact, I think they''re exacerbating it."
Vocational educators complain that under Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, the state''s edu- cational focus has shifted support away from voc ed and into college track course work, despite the fact that 80 percent of kids are likely to skip college. In the past two decades, a lack of funding and teachers has forced two out of three shop programs in California high schools to shut down.
Part of the problem is simply a matter of funding. The California Vocational Education Alliance estimates that California spent $200 million, less than one half of one percent of its $49 billion education budget, for hands-on career training in public schools in 1999. All in all, about $118 per student was spent on voc ed. Meanwhile, the state spent $75 million, or $462 per inmate, to arm prisoners with work skills.
Another problem is a lack of teachers. According to California Automotive Teachers, there are only four students within the state university system currently studying to be auto shop teachers. Even so, California failed to include the voc ed teachers in the Cal-Teach program last year, which offered up millions of dollars to recruit badly needed teachers.
Governor Gray Davis wielded another blow to voc ed last September when he vetoed Assembly Bill 2087. The bill--which sailed through the state Assembly and Senate and was supported by the California Teachers Association--would have required a state model for a hands-on curriculum. It also would have allowed students to substitute voc ed courses for fine arts and foreign language classes required for graduation. This last provision would have given a break to voc ed students, who spend half the day on academics and half on career training, classified as elective course work.
In his veto message, Davis revealed his sympathy for the prevailing idea that California needs to ramp up its education system and churn out more college-bound graduates in order to sustain the state''s high-tech economy. "While I believe career technical training is a critical component of the economic future of California and its companies," Davis said, "this provision [to substitute voc ed for fine arts or foreign language classes] is inconsistent with the state''s efforts to encourage pupils to take rigorous academic course work needed for pursuing higher education."
"That''s about the dumbest statement he could make," says Bob Barkhouse, executive director of California Automotive Teachers. "Anyone who knows these programs knows that, these days, vocational education is high tech."
Davis'' message rang clear in the ears of vocational educators. The state wants to send more kids down the college path and fewer towards technical fields. Advocates of career training say that attitude means non-college tracked kids are falling through the cracks.
"The whole momentum is, ''If you want to be anything in this world, you have to go to college,''" Barkhouse says. "Our whole education system is geared toward 20 percent of the students, and that''s a sad situation."
While California continues to pick away at vocational education, the demand for skilled workers soars.
Just ask Bob Constant, owner of Pacific Grove''s Forest Hill Auto Service. When he recently caught wind that a certain experienced auto technician walked off the job across town, Constant immediately reached for the phone. After a few calls, he was able to track down the mechanic at his father''s cabin near Shasta. By the time Constant reached the man, a bidding war had begun. The salary offers started rolling in at $70,000.
Auto shop owners are struggling to find and keep skilled labor. Constant says his top technician cleared $90,000 last year.
Michael Fleck, a business representative with the local Sheet Metal Workers Union, says his shop can''t provide enough experienced workers to meet the demand. A skilled HVAC (heating/ventilation/air conditioning) mechanic can expect to make $30 an hour locally, he says, and up to $38 an hour in Santa Clara County.
Ditto for plumbers, says Carol Blair, a business representative with the local Plumbers and Steamfitters union. A good plumber, she says, can make up to $38 an hour. Blair points out that she''s made more money in her trade than her two sisters, both teachers and college graduates.
"It''s a good profession." she says. "There''s a lot of money to be made and it''s a very rewarding job. You can look back at the end of each day and see what you''ve accomplished."
While the interest in trade careers dwindle, skilled workers are still very much needed in our society. We still need someone to work on our cars, build our homes and cut our hair, now and in the future.
"They''ll never invent a machine to color hair," Karen Dean quips.
So why are young people steering clear of the trades?
"I think there is this thing about it, that it''s not honorable," Dean says. "But those jobs are so innately part of what is necessary. There is much honor in it."
Girlz Under the Hood: Eugenia Torres tinkers with the innards of a Mercedes while Mission Hills ROP instructor Darrell Coburn looks on and keeps the sky from falling.
Shaking the Stigma
Ron Chesshire is a carpenter by trade. He''s also an active member of his community and his profession. He sits on the board of directors for the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, he''s a former Monterey Peninsula Unified School District boardmember, he serves as president of the Construction and Building Trades Council for Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, and he was appointed to the governor''s School-to-Career Labor Management Coope- rative Commission.
He''s a husband, a father of three and a proud homeowner. Chesshire''s house, which he''s remodeling himself, overlooks a golf course in an exclusive Monterey neighborhood.
As a business agent for the local Carpenters Union, Chesshire is often asked to speak to high school kids about careers in the building trades. When he goes into the schools, he knows he won''t appear before the college-tracked kids, but he expects to talk to kids with enough capacity and ambition to read a set of building plans.
But on one particular visit to a local school, an administrator ushered him into a continuation class made up of students who had fallen off the high school graduation track. The administrator insisted that Chesshire talk to the remedial students because "they''re the ones that really need these construction jobs."
Chesshire, a roll of blueprints tucked under his arm, turned around and walked away. "I just got really fed up," he says. "You would be surprised what it takes to be a carpenter."
Gone are the days when high school dropouts could turn to the trades for jobs. Today''s workers must be computer literate, proficient in math, and have the ability to read and follow complex instructions and diagrams. Yesterday''s auto mechanic is now an auto technician.
"Today''s car has more computers on it than the first rocket man blasted into space," observes Walker of the California Automotive Service Council. "You have to be technically fluent to work on them."
Yet the social stigma attached to traditional blue collar jobs persists. And voc ed advocates says that stigma is the single greatest roadblock to steering young people into the trades. Trade recruiters fight a constant battle to gain respect from high school guidance counselors who don''t offer bright kids the option of vocational training.
"You have to look at it from the standpoint of the counselor in the school," says Fleck. "Generally, they''ve gone to a four-year college. That''s what they know and that''s what they push.
"We often see counselors urge someone who is failing in school to go into the building construction trades," he continues. "But to be a HVAC [heating/ ventilation/air conditioning] mechanic, these are not throwaway kind of guys. They have to have an aptitude like an engineer in some regards, but they can''t be afraid to get their hands dirty. They have to be bright and physically agile."
But others say the shift away from the trades is simply a matter of a society in transition. While the trades today are more technically complex and require brighter protégés, bright kids have more choices than ever, and most are choosing to keep their hands clean.
"It used to be we had a lot of smart kids who didn''t go to college because they just flat couldn''t afford it. They ended up owning their own business because they were smart and efficient and self-motivated," says John Radov, Regional Occupational Program coordinator for Pacific Grove High School. "Now if someone is that smart to begin with, they don''t go into the trades.
"The trades are screaming for brain power," he says, "whereas the brain power is screaming, ''Why should I bother with you?''"
Academy of Higher Construction
It used to be that a trade was handed down from father to son, just as the skills of cooking, sewing and tidying the house were passed from mother to daughter. As kids have started to look beyond the home for life skills, trade organizations have become more proactive in seeking out young people to en- sure a future work force.
For instance, last year the Association of General Contractors accredited a "construction academy," a program run by the Mission Trails Regional Occupational Program at Hartnell College and Salinas High School. The association supplies equipment, materials and scholarships, and professionals offer job shadowing to students interested in making careers in the building trades.
Because they interact with professionals as part of the program, students enrolled in the academy "get more attention, and they get mentoring," says Catherine Escobar, co-owner of Escobar and Escobar Construction, who was instrumental in establishing the academy.
The construction industry benefits from the academy by showing future recruits that the building trades can offer a bright future. A capable carpenter can go from pounding nails to managing construction sites to running the show as a general contractor.
"We want to let them know that there is money to be made in the construction industry," Escobar says. "Not everyone is out there digging ditches."
Other organizations are trying to shape public policy. The California Automotive Teachers association is currently shopping around Sacramento for a legislator to sponsor three new bills aimed at breathing new life into vocational education. The bills would increase funding for hands-on classrooms, set up a system to recruit voc ed teachers and stop high school shops from closing.
"There''s a whole slug of careers out there that don''t need a college education," Barkhouse says. "It should be the goal of education to place students in a career field for success. That''s the bottom line."