Doing a Job Can Be the Best Way to Learn, Students and Future Employers Agree : Industry Looking to High Schools for Highly Skilled Technicians of Tomorrow

Times Staff Writer

Like a lot of young men, David Hancock, an 18-year-old senior at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, dreams of someday stepping into the cockpit of a fighter plane and roaring off into the wild blue yonder. In the meantime, he's doing something that friends with similar aspirations find hard to top: he's actually helping build one of the hottest aircraft around, the U.S. Navy's F-18 Hornet.

For the past 16 weeks, Hancock has been working two hours a day at the Northrop Corp.'s Fighter Production Center in El Segundo, where he is participating in a company program aimed at giving high school seniors job experience in high-tech industry. He works alongside regular employees in putting together the myriad parts of the F-18 on the plant's quarter-mile assembly line.

'Maybe I'll Get to Fly'

"When I see one of these planes in the movies or on TV, I like to think that I've had a small part in building them," Hancock said. "And, who knows? Maybe someday I'll get to fly a plane that I helped build."

In recent years, cooperative efforts between industry and public schools have become common as companies, particularly high-tech firms, worry about whether the schools will turn out graduates able to fill their rapidly changing skilled-labor needs.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, sends up to 4,000 students to a wide variety of businesses for Saturday vocational training, according to Rosario Fabiano, a district administrator.

Under the well-known Adopt-a-School program, TRW has taken 18 South Bay schools under its corporate wing, offering scholarships, grants, gifts of surplus equipment, lectures by visiting staff professionals and other benefits tailored to the needs of each school.

20 Volunteer Employees

Torrance-based Garrett AiResearch has a task force of about 20 volunteer employees who visit campuses regularly in an effort to persuade potential dropouts to complete high school.

The Northrop project, called the High School Involvement Program (HIP), is one of the pioneering efforts in this area, begun in 1971.

HIP manager Janice Aaron said more than 2,500 students from the eight participating school districts--Los Angeles, Centinela Valley Union, Inglewood, El Segundo, Torrance, Palos Verdes Peninsula, South Bay Union and Compton--have completed the program since it was founded.

This year, Hancock and about 250 other seniors from South Bay-area schools took time out from their regular classes, starting in February, to work at the El Segundo plant and at Northrop facilities in Hawthorne and Rolling Hills Estates.

"The main idea is to give the kids a preview of what it takes to succeed in the real world of work," Aaron said. "They get practical experience with the kind of equipment and procedures that they could be working with after they have completed their vocational or college training."

Although the company did not have figures on how many HIP graduates go on to full-time jobs with the firm, Aaron said about 23% of them expand their initial work experience by taking summer jobs at Northrop plants. They work in any of about 40 job categories, such as engineering, finance, contracts and pricing, quality control, data processing and graphic arts, she said.

Closely Supervised

But the company quickly discourages any notion that its fighter planes are turned out by an assembly line of teen-agers. Aaron emphasized that each student's work is supervised and inspected by Northrop employees at each step of the way to ensure compliance with factory standards. Four HIP students worked at the El Segundo plant this year.

"When new students first come in here, they seem to be overwhelmed by this huge building and all the activities going on," said Lou Langston, a plant supervisor. "When they leave, I think they have a good sense of how a modern production facility works. They get to see the whole process, from the assembly of the first components, to the day the aircraft goes out the back door."

The F-18 mainframes assembled at the El Segundo plant are shipped by rail to St. Louis, where the prime contractor, McDonnell Douglas, does the final assembly.

The student interns are periodically graded on their performance to give them feedback on their progress, Langston said. They are not paid for their time, he said, but they receive course credits at their schools and they can add the Northrop experience to future job resumes. To round out the training, the interns spend several days learning how to write resumes, then they are given trial job interviews that are videotaped and critiqued in the company's employment office.

Grades Important

Langston goes to the participating schools to interview HIP candidates after they have been screened by campus career counselors. "Good grades are important," he said, "but after that, what I'm looking for is drive, initiative and an eagerness to learn. They've got to want what we're offering before we can make any headway."

About half of the HIP students are from minority groups and most are planning blue-collar careers. College-bound students often see the program as a way to gain practical skills that can qualify them for income-producing work while they pursue their educational goals.

"Whatever their goals," said Fabiano, the Los Angeles school administrator, "it takes a very special kid to be willing to leave the familiar campus environment and explore what's behind the walls of business and industry. We believe the experience puts them a few steps ahead of students who don't venture out."

Mark Barron, 17, a HIP student who is graduating from Miraleste High School, said the Northrop experience helped him bring his career plans into better focus. His main job at the El Segundo plant was to gather up inspection records and other documention from the assembly line and help put them together in data books that accompany the aircraft when they are shipped to St. Louis.

Plans for Career

"Just being here and taking part in important, real work like this helps give me a clearer idea of what I want to do with my life," Barron said.

He said he plans to go on to college in the fall and eventually make a career in the aerospace field.

Al Queiors, a Northrop quality control inspector, said he finds it easy to relate to the interns and their aspirations because he is a former HIP intern who returned to work full time for Northrop.

"We try to be big brothers to the students, as well as instructors," he said. "We let them know that it's important to us that they succeed."

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