Labor Day a Tribute to the Backbone of our Economy
CA Schools Fail to Prep Youth for New High-Paying, Skilled-Labor Jobs

by Jack M. Stewart
Aug. 5, 2006
Americans first honored labor with its own holiday 124 years ago in New York City. Labor Day was then, as it is today, a reflection upon the contributions men and women have made to our nation through hard work. And although our nation has evolved in fundamental ways since that first official tribute, the need for skilled labor to fuel our economy has not changed. Yet today, more than ever before, employers struggle in the search for skilled workers, while the age-old art of labor suffers woefully from biases both within California’s education community and in the general population.

“We have trouble finding employees to fill family-wage jobs here,” says Kellie Johnson, President of Ace Clearwater Enterprises, a parts manufacturer based in Torrance, California. “Yet, when one of my mid-level employees was asked recently why he is in manufacturing, he responded with pride, ‘I have only a high school diploma, I make $72,000 a year, and I design and make things that go to the moon.’"

Skilled manufacturers in California earn salaries of between $50,000 and $80,000 a year. The average industrial technician, for example, earned $54,643 last year, according to the California Employment Department, while all other full-time U.S. workers earned a median income of less than $34,000. Manufacturing jobs in California, by the process of elimination, are becoming one of the state’s few sources of middle class and family wage jobs.

Peter Zierhut of Haas Automation Inc., America’s number one machine tool builder, travels the nation from his headquarters in Oxnard, California in search of answers to the workforce gap. “I have visited dozens of community colleges and vocational training centers, all over America,” he says. “Every school tells me the same story – that local business is overwhelming them with requests for new graduates with employable skills.” Wages at Haas Automation for skilled workers are as high as $28 per hour, plus overtime, bonuses, retirement plans and full benefits.

A recent survey of California community college students provides insight. In Contra Costa County, where Dow Chemical pays skilled workers up to $100,000, seventy-five percent of students in the county surveyed stated that they had not considered applying for a manufacturing job due to the perceived low salary. This false reputation has consequences that are harmful to our state’s economy. Shortages of applicants have forced companies like Dow to recruit for laborers outside California.

California’s education system is failing students by attempting to prepare them all for the same future, while failing to embrace the evolution of our economy. Only one in four high school students go on to earn baccalaureate degrees, yet high schools place the greatest priority on preparing students for college admission. An excessive emphasis on college prep leaves most high school students without proper skills to apply for the fastest growing sectors in the California economy. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projections show less than a 1 percent increase in the proportion of jobs in the national economy requiring a baccalaureate degree or higher in the next six years. Between 2003 and 2005, twenty-seven percent of all new California jobs were in the construction industry. The Bureau’s same projections anticipate that 72 percent of US jobs will not require a four year college degree.

Exacerbating the problem in California are the High School Exit Exam and Standardized Testing. The pressure is on educators to improve the numbers associated with these oft politicized tests, and any improvement will undoubtedly come to the detriment of career technical education (CTE). As schools focus more resources toward teaching to these tests, students are being removed from rigorous courses like career and technical education so they can remediate in the tested areas. In 2005, forty-thousand fewer students than the year prior enrolled in courses that provided real world skill and knowledge like robotics, agriculture, automotive technology, business, construction, pre-engineering and manufacturing. Although skilled labor dominates our economy, California has today the lowest percentage of students enrolled in career and technical education courses in our state’s history.

Sadly, for many students high school has lost its relevance and purpose. California’s drop-out rate is 30 percent. And a survey commissioned by the Gates Foundation showed that nearly 50% of drop-outs report their reason to be a lack of interest in the classes being offered.

There are other powerful forces at work which undermine career technical education. California’s University system (UC and CSU) has a thinly veiled bias against vocational studies that has, as a practical effect, discouraged high schools from expanding CTE courses. In an August 7, 2006 letter, the UC’s lobbyist spelled out the institution’s opposition to a piece of legislation that would have barred the UC from discriminating against an applicant for secondary curriculum meeting State Board of Education standards, including CTE courses. The letter reads "SB 1543 could jeopardize the quality of student preparation by … asking UC to accept courses that may not be related to preparation for college, such as cabinetmaking, food service, and welding but meet the State Board-approved standards that were written to prepare students for those particular career paths." Ironically, under the stated bill, CTE courses, like those described in the UC’s letter, and which meet the academically rigorous standards established by the Board of Education, are rejected while visual and performing art courses like “dance movement,” "tap-dancing" and "choir" are already accepted by the UC system.

Some education leaders are catching on to the trend in technical careers. Founded 10 years ago in California’s wine country, Napa’s New Technology High School prepares students with project-based courses made relevant to real world workforce experience. “In the wake of regional base closures and our growing economy, the business community came to the school board and pressed for the creation of a new type of learning,” says Susan Schilling of New Technology Foundation. “The result was the creation of our innovative high school where all courses – everything from English to technical courses – are taught as interactive and project-based. The students employ the tools of the modern workplace including technology and group collaboration. We prepare them for admission to the UC or the modern workplace, wherever they set their sites.” And Freestyle High in Mountain View, California, sparked by new state and federal investment funds to promote CTE, is another one of the few high schools focusing on technical education. “More districts are starting to look at this and finding this is a great way to deal with the dropout problem,” said Pat Ainsworth, assistant state superintendent of schools and director of career technical education, in a recent interview.

Gone are the nostalgic days when the majority of American workers could build a successful career and support a family without a high school diploma. But conversely, it is unrealistic to expect that every high school student will earn a baccalaureate degree and be guaranteed a highfalutin corporate salary. The future of California’s economy clearly shows that skilled labor – as a centerpiece to our delicate society and economy – will remain the dominant requirement. So this Labor Day we endeavor to honor labor and to highlight for our state education and legislative leaders the musings of Sophocles, relevant today, that “without labor nothing prospers.”

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