Vocational education less about jobs, more about careers

Vocational education was once synonymous with wood shop and auto repair classes. It became known as a place to put students who weren't college material.

But the focus has changed. And so has the name.

Educators, elected officials and business leaders held a summit at Central Valley High School in Ceres on Tuesday to talk about the future of what is now called career technical education.

"It is a very different system now, compared to the vocational education system when I went to school," said state Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced. "You made a choice -- either you went to vocational education classes or you went to college prep. Today, it's a single path that allows you to do vocational education and not give up the university system at the same time."

An example of the fusion of college- level courses and hands-on job training is Central Valley's agriculture biology class, which doubles as a science requirement for entry to a University of California or California State University campus.

Five years ago, 300 career technical classes in California satisfied a UC or CSU entry requirement. Today, about 5,400 such classes fit that requirement, according to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, who attended the summit.

O'Connell said statewide data show students who take career technical courses have lower dropout rates, higher attendance and better overall academic achievement than many of their peers.

As students in an agriculture mechanics classroom Tuesday practiced their welding, they also were earning credits to attend Modesto Junior College.

"I think that it's great," Maria Azevedo, 16, said of her welding experience. "It shows that girls can do this job also."

Teacher Bill Douglas said his goal is for students to go on to a trade school, community college or a four-year university. At the very least, graduates can earn $17 to $20 per hour in a fabrication shop right out of high school.

Ken Moncrief, chairman of Central Valley High's agriculture department, said the biggest problem with career technical programs is helping students find the time to participate.

"If they don't have a place in their schedule to take the class, we're going to lose a big part of what we're doing," he said.

In addition to agriculture, business leaders are trying to prepare students to be employable in the burgeoning biotechnology industry. With more skilled job candidates, some of those businesses may expand to the Central Valley.

Bill Bassitt, chief executive officer of the Stanislaus Economic Development & Workforce Alliance, said the Central Valley first needs to develop high school graduates who have adequate technology and scientific training to attract biotech businesses to the area. Career technical academies, such as Enochs High's forensic science program, allow students to learn skills and satisfy their basic high school course work.

"We have to convince them we have a labor force here that has the type of necessary skills," Bassitt said.

O'Connell said vocational education of the past tended to be less rigorous and "tracked" minority and low-income students away from higher education. By 2010, more than 90 percent of jobs will require more training than a high school education, he said.

"We know not every student is going to a university or a college, and that's OK," O'Connell said. "But it's equally important that we don't limit our students' options when they finish high school."

These days, trade manuals for manufacturing and auto repair jobs read more like college textbooks. Those aiming to work in those fields must be well-versed in the newest technology.

"As we incorporate technology into the business world, it makes the factories more efficient, so we lose more people," Bassitt said. "People need to be better prepared to embrace the technology and not be a victim of it."

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.