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Saturday, Mar 23 2013 11:00 PM

A sensible plan to tackle dropout rates

By The Bakersfield Californian

Conceptually, a bill intended to curb high school dropout rates being promoted by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg makes sense. Pulling off the task of keeping kids in school is a multifaceted problem, but Steinberg's bill looks like a valuable tool.

Steinberg's plan would develop and fund programs that train high school students for specific careers. Not every student is cut out for academia, but the country will always need plumbers. If instruction that's more vocational or technical in nature can hold students' attention better than literature and physics -- think auto repair, graphic design or woodworking -- it seems immeasurably better to prepare them in one of those fields.

The state's education system needs to buy in for this to work. Our schools must be willing to change deeply entrenched, substantially outdated models and embrace some new realities.

The plan calls for private industry to invest in the program by buying bonds, which would in theory pay out a return on investment based on the success of the program. Funding would help develop new curricula tailored to specific skills and careers, as well as apprenticeships and fellowship programs to provide students with hands-on training from professionals.

Steinberg has put himself out in front as a proponent of education reform in California. Some of his ideas are better than others. His effort to require that California's public college systems allow students to fulfill graduation requirements by taking online courses offered by third parties sounds like it would absolve our public universities of their essential mission and reduce them to something akin to education brokers. But Steinberg's interest in vocational education at the high school level has great merit.

Some students will flourish in vocational programs tailored to their interests, and California clearly needs well-trained craftsmen and craftswomen with the skills vital to achieving maximum employment and a healthy economy. Steinberg correctly contends that "we have a 20th-century (education) model for a 21st-century economy and it must change. Academic rigor and career relevance cannot be separate goals."

The job opportunities are there. As many as 600,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs are vacant across the U.S. due to shortages of skilled workers, according to the Manufacturing Institute. And it could get worse before it gets better: The average age of a highly skilled U.S. manufacturing worker is 56. A good example is the furniture industry, which is about to lose a generation of workers. Furniture workers under age 35 are just 15 percent of the industry's workforce.

A survey by Manpower of 35,000 employers found that the lack of skilled tradesmen was the country's No. 1 hiring challenge. Among those most needed are plumbers, electricians and carpenters. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2014 the U.S. will need 29 percent more heating and ventilation specialists and 21 percent more plumbers -- an increase of more than 100,000 workers in the job pool. The country's demand for plumbers alone is expected to grow 10 percent by 2016.

How did this happen? Decades ago, unions trained workers in the trades. Today, companies often rely on independent contractors whose companies are reluctant to invest in worker training.

Vocational education programs like the one Steinberg proposes have the potential to put a dent in that skilled-worker deficit while creating careers and, in the immediate term, encouraging school attendance among those who might not otherwise be so inclined. Steinberg's program won't do much to address the myriad other problems associated with the dropout issue, the biggest by far being parental interest and responsibility, or lack thereof. But that's an issue for another day.

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