Our View: State helping to find, fund pathway from schools to jobs

April 21, 2014 

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg sees Switzerland as a model for California. Forget clocks, chocolates or banks. It’s Switzerland’s vocational education and training he wants to emulate.

Many developed countries worry about what has been called “generation jobless,” in which young people are engaged in neither a job nor training. Switzerland, by contrast, has low unemployment in the 16-to-24 age group. Students go from school to specific training to a job. Swiss students combine classroom and workplace learning after grade 9. Rather than sitting in classrooms all week, they spend three days in paid apprenticeships and two days in the classroom working on academics. Combining learning and work promotes high-productivity and high-wage jobs, not dead-end, sub-living-wage jobs.

In the United States, high school diplomas long ago ceased to provide a path to the middle class. And now, even those with bachelor’s degrees find themselves serving coffee or waiting by the phone.

“We’re different from Switzerland,” says Steinberg, who visited Switzerland. “But the model and the practices are undeniable, a system where if a student does his or her part, there’s close to a guarantee of a high-wage job.”

California already has many high school career-technical programs, but too few appeal to a large number of students. Rather than chucking the system, Steinberg wants to build on it. The key, he believes, is providing all students with the skills needed to pursue a large number of career options. Steinberg believes the $250 million California Career Pathways Trust for one-time, competitive grants, which passed the Legislature in July, will help.

“This is a big seed,” Steinberg says, compared with President Barack Obama’s $100 million for Youth CareerConnect grants spread across the nation. The trust will give four-year grants to regional partnerships that link high schools, community colleges and businesses with a focus on work-based learning opportunities in high-need and high-growth job sectors.

The demand is huge. Nearly 300 applications from school districts came in by the March 28 deadline seeking more than $1.5 billion.

Collaboration and partnerships are key.

The Stanislaus County Office of Education linked arms with Yosemite Community College District and Modesto, Ceres, Riverbank, Patterson and Oakdale school districts on several grants applications totaling around $3 million. The more partners, the more pathways to a successful grant, was the thinking.

“We sat around a table and talked about who would be applying, the pathways they’d be applying for and how we could help each other,” said Cindy Young, SCOE’s director of career and technical education. “Luckily, there wasn’t really a (conflict). Each agency that wanted to apply had a specific area, except we all had interest in supporting each other.”

One was a “farm-to-fork” focus that involved ag programs in various districts and the culinary centers in Oakdale and at Columbia College. For districts such as Oakdale, the pathway forms a natural link to Columbia College. But Riverbank, Turlock and the county’s internal programs don’t have culinary centers, so a Pathway grant would allow them to benefit, too. Business partners from Duarte and Dave Wilson nurseries to House of Beef in Oakdale signed on as partners.

In Patterson, high school students will link with MJC programs in a small-engine program focused on ag. There are more that are similar.

All of the programs include job shadowing and have internship possibilities. “We want to make sure they have the opportunity,” said Young.

Such opportunities have too frequently been missing, especially in the Central Valley, where unemployment exceeds 13 percent – higher for young people. To reach those most in need, a fair number of the Pathways grants must come to the Central Valley.

The lucky winners of grants will be announced May 23.

As we wait to learn which districts will be among the lucky few to be awarded Pathway grants, we can’t help but think of the “Hunger Games” – the books and movies in which champions are pitted against one another in a game of survival of the fittest. We hope that’s not the case here. Clearly, in an area that considers 13 percent unemployment an improvement, the need is critical. It would be devastating to think the only pathway to a job was through Los Angeles or San Jose.

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