Reinvigorating 'career tech' a worthy goal

Senate President Darrell Steinberg is on the right track with a bill to create partnerships between industry and schools to prepare youths for good-paying jobs.

SACRAMENTO — We used to call it "shop." Wood shop. Auto shop. Then the educators got fancy and renamed it "vocational education."

Later, as the dot.com era dawned, it was rebranded "career tech."

Now, throughout much of California, you can just call it history — the victim of recession-rooted budget cuts in the state Capitol and school districts.

Career tech classes are expensive. Buying and updating machinery isn't for penny pinchers. So these courses are easy targets for the budget axe, even though they may be the most meaningful and relevant for many students, who otherwise might just get bored and drop out.

Shop isn't completely dead in California. There are exceptions. Such as in Long Beach. There, the school district offers an extensive career tech program in — you name it — auto mechanics, computer systems, health services, robotics, biotechnology, architecture.

It so inspired Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) that he recently led legislators on a field trip there to meet the students — a reverse of the usual routine of students visiting the politicians in the Capitol.

"The students told us that with career academies and small learning communities they were more engaged and focused on their studies," Steinberg says.

"We're looking for a pragmatic way to get industry involved in education, combining academic rigor and career relevance. [This] will pay off with more success for our students and a stronger workforce in our state."

A generation ago, 7 in 10 California kids took at least one career tech class, according to its advocates. Today, only 3 in 10 do.

Steinberg on Tuesday held a news conference — surrounded by representatives of business, labor and academia — to propose legislation that would revive career tech in high schools.

"We hear consistently that California is not doing a good enough job preparing young people for the modern workforce," the Senate leader said. "This is about building the middle class."

Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce, noted that "not everybody needs a degree from Berkeley. Not every job requires a degree from Berkeley."

Steinberg's legislation is a bit convoluted — at least the financing part — and needs much work. But it's a very worthy project, unlike much of the trivia that is proposed in Sacramento.

The bill, SB 594, is aimed at encouraging partnerships between industry and schools to create so-called career-pathway programs that include training, internships, summer jobs and apprenticeships.

Students in economically disadvantaged areas with high dropout rates would have the highest priority.

"We have to start in areas of greatest need," Steinberg told me. "We want to make sure we're not spending precious public dollars where the need is not great."

Steinberg is suggesting several financing methods, including tax credits and foundation grants. But the main money source involves bonds.

The state would sell "workforce development bonds" — say, for $1 million a crack — to businesses in areas "with the greatest potential for high-wage job growth." The bond revenue would pay for the career-tech programs. The bond-buyers would earn a rate of return based on a program's results, as judged by some committee.

"I'm not sure I completely understand it," Zaremberg told me. "Why don't we just fund this out of existing resources? Is this not a priority?

"Is this funding source perfected? No. But people in the business community feel strongly enough about it that we have to sit down and figure out a resource. Or else it's going to continue to cost society and cost the economy. We have to work together to bring career tech back into the schools so we can match students' skills with employment opportunities."

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