By Maureen Magee | 7 a.m. June 4, 2016
This year’s high school diploma represents a milestone in San Diego and in cities across the state, certifying for the first time graduates completed all coursework required for admission to a California public university.
However, some members of the Class of 2016 are celebrating a sheepskin that acknowledges their ambitions of finding a skilled job — immediately after high school — along with benefits and a path to higher wages.
“I never really saw myself going to college,” said Billy May-Hatch, who graduated Friday from a Vista charter school with a specialty in electrical and audio work. “I’ve always been into building things. I still read Shakespeare, but I got a lot more out of learning how to read blueprints.”
May-Hatch is among the first in the state to graduate under California’s Multi-Trade Partnership Academies, which offer “pre-apprenticeships” to students in high school.
While slogging through algebra and history classes, students also learned how to install drywall, lay pipes and wire a house for electricity. They passed OSHA safety exams, and studied the history of labor unions.
A collaboration between the California Department of Education and the California Labor Federation, the new academies offer three-year pre-apprenticeships in high school. The programs are designed to accelerate training and entry into high-paying union trades including electrical workers, carpenters, plumber and pipe-fitters.
After high school, graduates are eligible to serve full apprenticeships, earning up to $14 an hour with benefits. After four years, they could land union jobs in the trade industry that pay up to $37 an hour, said Jim Odle , an instructor at North County Trade Tech, where eight of this year’s class of more than 30 graduates completed the program.
“It’s really an incredible opportunity,” Odle said. “We try to place them in jobs locally. That can be a real motivator for some kids.”
May-Hatch has lined up a job in the electrical trade. His goal is to someday open his own audio-electrical business.
In addition to North County Trade Tech, schools in San Diego (Hoover High School), Riverside, San Bernardino, Soquel and Arvin offer pre-apprenticeships.
The state program is part of a broader effort to expand career-themed classes in schools without losing ground on college-preparation goals. New research suggests such efforts pay off for students when vocational courses are paired with rigorous math and science instruction.
A national study released this month found that high school graduates who maintained decent grades while focusing on a single trade go on to earn more money than their counterparts who dropped out of a four-year college or received a two-year degree.
“With so many high school graduates going on to college, the focus for high schools has in large part been on college readiness, but at the expense of learning what makes graduates career-ready,” said Patte Barth , director of the Center for Public Education, which released its third installment in a series of reports about non-college goers, “Path Least Taken III: Rigor and focus in high school pays dividends in the future.”
The research found that eight years after graduating from high school, only 13 percent of students studied had not gone on to enroll in any classes in a two- or four-year college. Of the students who entered colleges, less than half earned a degree by age 26.
Often burdened with student debt, those who didn’t compete college had job prospects only slightly better than had they not gone at all.
High school graduates that receive certification in their chosen trade go on to achieve “higher economic and social outcomes” than their non-college bound peers who did not participate, the national study found.
Using longitudinal data from the U.S. Department of Education, the study tracked a nationally representative sample of 15,000 students from 750 high schools from the class of 2004 until they turned 26.
These “high credentialed” non-college goers (students who earned a vocational credential after taking a minimum three courses in the same trade, maintained a minimum C+ grade-point average and completed Algebra II and advanced science) earned 39 percent more than non-credentialed non-college goers — $18.71 per hour compared to $13.42.
They earned 21 percent more than two-year degree holders at age 26 (earning $15.43 an hour). The vocationally trained group trailed the four-year degree graduates in hourly wage by 3.4 percent.
Once called vocational education, career technical education has seen a resurgence in California, with the state poised to award a total of $900 million in grants over three years to support schools, colleges and businesses develop partnerships to better-prepare students for jobs.
The new education-labor partnership seeks to establish a pipeline of young workers to building and construction industries, which have an aging workforce. In California, more than half of all skilled trade workers are 45 or older, and more than one of every five workers is 55 or older.
“These construction academies never before had such a clear purpose, as industry partners have guided the instruction toward excellent skill development and employment opportunities,” said Jerry Winthrop, who oversees the California Partnership Academy program for the state.
The academies are part of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s California Career Readiness Initiative. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown provided nearly $31 million in funding for the academies, and made the program a permanent part of the state budget, in part, because of its goal of helping at-risk students.
Enrollment in the academies is growing, with 400 expected to graduate in 2017.
Hoover High School in San Diego expects to graduate students with the labor-certified diplomas next year. However, several seniors from Hoover’s building and engineering academy plan to go on to apprenticeships after graduation this year due to their specialized education and training, said Angie Hummel, who oversees the program.
“It’s so relevant because it actually connects kids with a real-world opportunity,” Hummel said.
Half of the students in the Hoover program are considered “at risk” due to attendance problems, low grades or insufficient classes, Hummel said.
“For a student who wants to get to work and be independent, this can serve as that carrot to get through high school with a real purpose,” she said.
Torlakson said the new diplomas are part of an effort to expand establish clear, practical pathways to high-demand careers. The initiative is considered especially promising for at-risk youth, he said.
“These academies provided them with a sense of family, a sense of hope, and a promise for a bright future in an important job,” Torlakson said in a statement.
Students who graduate from the academies are certified by the National Building Trades Council in Washington, D.C.
State education officials are working out how to measure college and career readiness at high schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and the state’s Local Control Funding Formula. Up for consideration is judging schools based on how many career tech courses are offered, and how many students enroll in them.