Posted on: October 21st, 2014 by Stas



Last spring, Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) convened a solar business advisory group to discuss how the college can better help businesses. One business owner complained that high school graduates are increasingly unable to perform elementary tasks such as showing up at the job on time, following instructions, returning phone calls and emails. Basic reading, writing and math skills are also lacking.

The business owner argued that the lack of common sense skills undermines the ability of companies to build a quality workforce.

John Lloyd, a retired Sonoma County electrician, independently teaches courses for students seeking solar industry jobs in which math skills, particularly algebra, are emphasized. Lloyd believes that common sense skills are important but he argues that local high schools and the Sonoma County Office of Education need to do more to prepare students for good paying jobs in renewable industries.

Lloyd hopes the new Sonoma Clean Power authority will support renewable jobs and education in addition to providing competitive utility rates.

Lloyd says Sonoma County high schools place too much emphasis on preparing students for college and have cut back on technical and vocational classes. The result is less opportunity for the seventy-five percent of high school graduates who do not attend a four year college.

At one Sonoma County high school, a carpentry instructor explained the problem. He gave students an assignment to fashion a piece of wood according to certain specifications. One student mistakenly cut too much wood and was short of requirements. He went to the instructor asking for more wood, but the instructor refused: “I am struggling to make clear to kids that when I provide the specifications that they don’t change after they’ve made a mistake. If they don’t get this point now, they will be in trouble in the real world when their job depends on following instructions.”

The instructor noted that his high school used to allow mathematics to be taught in the wood shop class with the result that students were able to see how addition, subtraction and division came into play when they were doing their carpentry assignments. Unfortunately, mathematics is no longer taught in the vocational classes with the result that students do not see how dimensional issues and getting their math correct coincide. He and fellow vocational teachers believe that they are being slowly eliminated from high schools as a result of a gentrification process that emphasizes a white-collar curriculum and going to college as opposed to a blue-collar curriculum that provides a hands-on experience for obtaining industrial and construction related jobs.

Gene Karas, a leading vocational advocate for Sonoma County schools, recently retired as a career technology instructor at Petaluma High School. Echoing Lloyd, Karas says “high schools need to do much more in the way of providing technical skills for students … the emphasis in sending everyone to college leaves a lot of kids behind.”

Karas says the challenges of building a renewable energy economy and building a new economy period cannot be met without improved support for vocational education. High school counselors need to be more supportive and aware of technical training and encourage students to pursue these training courses, he says.

A bigger problem, Karas says is “parents need to be more supportive of technical training for their kids because some kids who do go to college end up with skills that do not always provide decent paying jobs.”

Last year, Karas met with Stephen Jackson and Pat Biagi, at the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE). They told him the downturn in the construction industry since 2008 and slowing growth in renewables complicates prospects for manufacturing and green jobs. They noted that local schools do support technical education: “All 15 high schools in our district have career technical education (CTE) courses. These include courses in agriculture, media, construction, social work, protective services, business, finance, and pediatric care.”

Jerry Miller, dean of Career & Technical Education at SRJC noted that a new” $15M, 6 county career pathway trust grant” will be developing career pathways in local schools including: “manufacturing, engineering design/green tech, ag (agriculture), digital media…”

Miller says education must be market-orientation:” Doesn’t matter what we teach, what programs we offer, if there aren’t jobs the students won’t enroll and we (education) can’t sustain it. Bottom line the construction industry has not rebounded and there aren’t enough “green” jobs available to sustain the programs to train. Wish I had a crystal ball… “

Karas says that the CTE courses do not sufficiently focus on the need for construction and manufacturing -specific jobs and training. He is calling for creation of a more focused industrial technology curriculum that is provided by the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER).

On its website, NCCER says its curriculum includes more than 70 craft areas and is taught worldwide by contractors, associations and secondary and post-secondary schools. Courses include: alternative energy, applied math, electrical, pipefitting, weatherization, welding, green environmental jobs and economic development. (see http://www.nccer.org/curriculum?mID=105)

Karas says: “We have a lot of kids that are very motivated to get a good quality education but their success and the success of millions of other high school students depends on us getting much more serious about training students to be qualified electricians, plumbers, carpenters, machine tool operators and production workers.”

The North Coast Builders Exchange and some Sonoma labor unions including the sheet metal workers and electrical workers support the Petaluma High School technical education programs.

A report from Oakland, California-based LearningWorks suggests how community colleges can assist in worker training along the lines that Karas suggests:

“Recent research on the California community college system has revealed that workforce training programs yield some of the highest earnings for community college students, regardless of whether those students complete a degree or college certificate. Still, most conversations about community college success are limited to whether students graduate. An exclusive focus on degree completion does not fit well with the diversity of workforce training pathways that colleges have built in career and technical education (CTE), because many of these pathways do not lead to a college credential. By expanding definitions of student success to include employment, earnings gains, and third-party credentials, colleges will be able to more accurately measure the outcomes of all their CTE programs. This brief draws on numerous studies to explore alternative approaches to measuring how well community colleges serve CTE students.” 1

Len Greenwood, a retired Montgomery High School teacher, has been meeting with Santa Rosa City Schools officials to discuss the establishment of a Sonoma County Central Career Training Facility to increase vocational education in Sonoma County schools.

In a proposal Greenwood argues: “Vocational education has been and continues to be eliminated from high school and as a result the potential to prepare for and fill the increasing demand for technicians is rapidly eroding.” Greenwood’s proposal is to establish a school that will attract new teachers, as well as specialists such as John Lloyd, to create a curriculum focused on agriculture, renewable energy, culinary arts, green construction, civics and community service, mechanics and sustainable practices. Greenwood has been discussing his proposals with officials from the North Coast Builders Exchange, Santa Rosa City Schools and the Sonoma County Office of Education.

By motivating schools to teach more vocational classes, Lloyd, Karas, and Greenwood hope students will be better trained to meet future workforce requirements as well as more motivated to be punctual and responsible employees.

1 LearningWorks & WestED , The Ones That Got Away: Why Completing a College Degree Is Not the Only Way to Succeed. (September 2014)

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