MAKING A DIFFERENCE : One Organization’s Approach: Put Youths on Track to College, Jobs

Compiled by Times researcher CATHERINE GOTTLIEB

Transportation construction like the $163-billion MetroRail project can disrupt nearby communities for years. As a way to give something back to the communities affected by their projects, in 1985 the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority created an intensive training and jobs program. The Transportation Occupations Program (TOP) offers technical study, summer employment and academic scholarships to steer high school students into transportation-related careers. The program partners the MTA and the unified school districts of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Compton; school districts are added as the Metro Rail system expands. More than 90% of the students who successfully complete the classroom component of the program go on to college.



Students receive 12 hours of after school and weekend instruction each week during the school year. They earn high school credit by taking classes in a state-approved curriculum that includes drafting, architectural model building, engineering math, graphic design and technical illustration. Teachers are recruited from school districts and engineering and transportation companies. At least two field trips each semester supplement classwork.


Four hundred students from 20 high schools have participated in TOP classes since 1986.


TOP finds engineering-related summer jobs for students who miss no more than 10% of the program’s classes and maintain a C-average in their regular school work. Students earn more than minimum wage working 30-hour a week jobs with local engineering and construction companies. Jobs include blueprint production, surveying, computer drafting and document control and design. The students who go on to college can return to the jobs during summer breaks.

Fifty companies have provided employment for TOP students since 1986.



Students who pass all TOP classes, attend at least 90% of the classes each semester and have a minimum 2.5 cumulative high school grade point average are eligible to apply for college scholarships ranging from $300 to $1,500 each year.

103 scholarships worth $108,000 have been awarded since 1986.


Charles Daniel

Deputy Division Manager, Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, an L.A. engineering firm.

Companies benefit by bringing in these young kids. These kids are fresh; they haven’t even begun to approach the envelope of their creativity so they are like dry sponges, absorbing whatever knowledge a company desires to give them. They’re being disciplined at a very early age about what the work environment is--the importance of time and delivery of product, budget constraints.

When they go to school and get an academic base they know how it’s going to be applied in the world of work. They can extrapolate from academia and understand how it fits into the real world.


The students have jobs of significant responsibility. None of them are making photocopies, making coffee, filing. They work on computers with (software) packages that some say are the most complicated programs to learn in the industry. The responsibilities are indicative of the quality instruction the students receive in the classes TOP offers.

I’m an import to Los Angeles along with many of my colleagues that have been on around this rail project for 10 years or so. There was not a labor resource pool here that the project could draw upon. We’re aware that we’re helping to train a new diverse generation of workers. And as an African American man I know that I play a vital role exposing this profession and industry to the community which I’m a part of.


Michael Henderson

Graduated from Washington High School in Los Angeles and TOP in 1990, currently a civil engineering major at Cal State Long Beach and part-time employee at Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall.

After taking all of these computer drafting and design classes I worked on the CAD (computer aided design) network here one summer. Then I was hired permanent part time and that’s when I got into production and even assisting in the training process (with other TOP students) to help people who weren’t as computer literate. We were helping out these older engineers. And it helped us because we learned how to negotiate with people, how to act maturely, how to apply our knowledge for the benefit of the project; it gave us confidence and we earned some respect for our knowledge.

I had an idea about what I wanted to do when I was in high school, but I saw no path to follow. The TOP program gave me a visible path, a practical solution for exactly what I could do after I get my degree and experience--even before I get my degree--that’s going to help me later on. Hopefully I’ll graduate in 1995 and I plan to stay in the L.A. area working with the rail project if I can.



For information about student, instructor or employer involvement in the Transportation Occupations Program call (213) 244-6546 or 244-6134.