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Skilled trades, middle skills in schools battle a pro-college bias

Students in the optics technology program at Monroe Community College often have job offers before they complete their degree or certificate.

Now some of the 120 optics companies in Rochester are also reaching into local high schools. The students either are just starting to learn skills for the optics field or their interest in the class indicates a willingness to learn more skills on the job.

“I have been contacted by an optics manufacturing plant about my students in the high school program and if any of them are interested in a job,” said Alexandra Virga, a chemistry and optics teacher in the West Irondequoit School District who teaches an introductory class in optics.

West Irondequoit is one of about 10 local schools offering beginning classes in optics with dual credit at Monroe Community College. Some students register to receive credit at MCC for the class they take at their high school while others just use it to fulfill a high school science requirement. But the dual credit arrangement can provide a leg up on a degree or certificate in a field that will lead directly to a job in high demand right now.

It’s a line of thought diametrically opposed to the advice most teenagers receive today to put all their eggs in the college-prep basket.

“For too long they’ve kind of glorified (it,) made it sound like the sole path to prosperity is college,” said Dan Maloney, president of the Rochester and Genesee Valley Labor Council. “That left us a glut of people in fields where they’re not needed with a ton of debt.”

(File photo) Classes like this one in auto mechanics at Monroe Community College seek to teach important middle skills jobs that will help graduates find employment.
(File photo) Classes like this one in auto mechanics at Monroe Community College seek to teach important middle skills jobs that will help graduates find employment.

Meanwhile, shop classes, where students of previous generations used to learn basics in carpentry or auto mechanics, are largely a thing of the past in comprehensive high schools these days. A generation or two of students have no older relatives in the trades. With no exposure to such skills, fewer people are seeking jobs in those fields.

To help combat that trend, the Builder’s Exchange of Rochester held a construction career event May 21 to introduce high school students and young adults to opportunities in the building trades.

“The industry has an immediate need for positions. We also have long-term needs,” said Aaron Hilger, president the Builder’s Exchange, a trade organization.

The needs are particularly high because of retiring baby boomers, Hilger said, but they’re also driven by the Great Recession’s slowdown in construction in the late aughts, which discouraged new people from entering the field.

“You had a whole group of people who normally would have entered the market who didn’t,” Hilger said. But the economy has since recovered. “We have a year or two of pretty good work now, we have space to bring in more people,” he said.

While schools like the Rochester City School District’s Edison Technical High School and county BOCES programs do offer construction classes, Hilger said educators have little incentive to expose students at mainstream high schools to the trades.

“High school administrators are really rated on how many people graduated and how many people went to college. Nobody rates (them on) how many people got a great job,” he said.

Classes that expose students to job skills give them a chance to consider a different path, but not necessarily one path at the expense of another.

“We see a lot of people who have gone to college, tried a couple of things and then decided they want to go into construction,” said Hilger, describing the path he took, too. “The average age of apprentice in the union sector is a lot closer to 30 now than 20.”

Likewise, students going into the work force right out of high school needn’t kiss college goodbye.

Maloney, who has had a career in automotive manufacturing and the union representing it, now has two associate’s degrees related to his work. Neither one came right after high school.

But college isn’t necessary to make a good living, several people interviewed for this article said. Some basic skills–innate or learned–are.

“If you’re a smart worker with really great ‘show up’ skills and good attitude, you’re fully employable,” Hilger said.

Tom Tallone, an optics and engineering teacher at Edison Tech, said students who are good problem solvers and not easily discouraged when a first effort fails are the ones drawn to optics studies and work.

Plenty of programs help youngsters get that first job and the training that comes with it. Maloney said local building unions–brick layers, pipe fitters, electrical workers and others–sponsor a program coaching high school students and even young adults who’ve already had a first or second job. The program helps them gain the skills they need to pass apprentice acceptance exams leading to better paying jobs.

Virga said, “There are so many opportunities for students to go into the field (of optics) right after high school and training so they can move up in job title and the salary that comes with it.

“Corning has been doing a very good job with their outreach program,” she noted. In the company’s technician pipeline program, “They will pay for your school at MCC. You work at the plant for one day a week while you’re in school and you get a salary. After your two years of school you are guaranteed a job at Corning.”

And Corning isn’t the only company doing that.

“Getting the job right out of high school with the company that is willing to pay for you to take a couple of courses at night is huge,” said Tallone.

Some students complete job training courses at the high school level and then continue on in additional training or study in that field in college. Tallone mentioned articulation agreements in architecture between Edison and Rochester Institute of Technology, and in optics between Edison and MCC and Alfred State College.

Other students go straight to work, but they still move up.

“Just because you start as laborers and carpenters doesn’t mean you stay there,” Hilger said. Many in the trades go on to own their own companies. And those companies need the specialists any other company needs, too, like accountants and human resource workers.

Both educators and industry advocates say high school students need to have more exposure to jobs that either don’t require a college degree, or that just require technical training available at community colleges.

“Our culture has glorified the business community over get your hands dirty and build something,” Maloney said, adding that this attitude denigrates “people who work with their hands rather than pushing that as a really good financial option for the future.”

People in the industry can help destigmatize their work by making themselves available to visit schools and talking about what they do.

“The more they come in and talk with the students, the more the student realizes what the job is like,” Tallone said. One-on-one exposure to people in the industry also gives students a chance to find out how workers in that industry lead their lives outside of work, too, so they can envision themselves leading a similar kind of life.

Hilger said industries need to tell their story better to students and their parents, asking them to envision where their career path might take them if it doesn’t start with a four year degree and the debt that may be associated with it.

Educators said industries also can help recruit more future workers for their companies by providing equipment for training students in high schools and offering internships or shadowing experiences at their workplaces.

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