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Trading Up? College Isn’t the Only Path to Jobs

Public vocational schools are preparing students for careers ranging from biotech to construction – jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree. SDSU backpack journalist Brandon Stone has t

Public vocational schools are preparing students for careers ranging from biotech to construction – jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree.

Doreen Burke, CEO of Trade Tech High School in Vista, sees the value of trade schools as an opportunity for high school students who might otherwise fall through the cracks. San Diego teenagers dropping the hammer and nails for a ball and pads are getting the opportunity to chase the vocational dreams they may have missed.

“We’re shortchanging our youth by only communicating one way,” Burke said. “I completely support long-term learning, but it doesn’t have to happen in the university. There are multiple ways of post-secondary education.”

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Trade Tech, which started in 2007 and is funded by private foundations and local businesses, prepares students for college and other vocations through hands-on training.

According to San Diego Workforce Partnership, the county high school drop out rate is at nearly 15 percent. Teenagers leaving traditional schools early are finding out their job market isn’t swimming with the $16 an hour job to sustain a basic standard of living. As a result, San Diego is becoming a prime destination for high school reform - sending students to nontraditional trade schools as an alternative to regular high schools.

“Going straight from high school into the job market is not going to sustain them very well, especially with the lifestyle they want to lead,” Monte Vista High School counselor Deanna Goldberg said. Monte Vista is a traditional school that also offers an array of Regional Occupation Program classes. The program provides training in such fields as automotive, craft and culinary arts.

Students are immersed in math and science – two of the few areas of potential job growth in San Diego, according to the Workforce Partnership. Fields in construction, electrical work and plumbing require the type of mathematical skills trade schools provide. Rather than learning about angles and circumferences in a book, a student can build a birdhouse and see the numbers in front of them, providing instant life application.

“By the time they’ve graduated from high school, they’ll have completed at least a year of an apprenticeship,” Trade Tech director Katherine O’Sullivan said. “[They will] have skills that they can use out in the labor market and compete favorably in high-skill, high-wage jobs.”

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Construction jobs, for example, are still booming despite the housing crunch.

The industry is projected to open 9,000 new positions and gain more than 11,000 new employees over the next 10 years, according to Workforce Partnership.

“All the bonds that are passed for building of highways, for hospitals, for new schools … commercially, the need is still really high and never really loses its ground,” Burke said.

Administrators at schools like Trade Tech say they can help students not feel like they have fallen short by pursuing a trade.

“The fact that they’re in a world that’s more project-driven, that’s more real world … it’s more likely to keep them engaged in school, finish school, and have some vision for their future,” O’Sullivan said.

Still, many high school students have to be convinced that working in a field like construction is a viable alternative to going to college. Russ Thurman, president of Gould Electric – a major sponsor of Trade Tech, says most traditional schools won’t encourage a student to pursue a construction job.

“It was perceived as ‘If you have nothing else to do, get in construction.’ We’re just planting seeds for the future,” Thurman said, adding that schools like Trade Tech will show that the construction industry as a whole is not a stopping ground “but an actual career path that can take care of families.”

Burke forecasts Trade Tech as just the beginning. Other specialty schools of the future might focus on medicine, health services, biotech or environmental sciences, she said.

Trade school supporters say the key is placing the trade in the center of the curriculum to create seamless integration, not in a place where the trade is competing with other extracurricular activities.

“I don’t want kids to choose between being on the football team and learning a trade,” Burke said.

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