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Are high school grads prepared

Some educators think the emphasis on college minimizes vocational training, lessons that legions of students in Pinellas will need.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 4, 1999

Not everyone goes to college. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students graduated from Pinellas County schools last month with no plans for a bachelor's degree.

At a time when unemployment is low and employers are scrambling to fill openings, are these students ready to work?

Some educators aren't so sure. They fear that the long-standing belief that college is the best future for high school graduates tends to minimize vocational training programs in Pinellas schools. That in turn tends to stunt readiness and skill in the local work force, according to business owners.

"Everybody's going to college," said Debbie Fischer, Business Cooperative Education teacher at Northeast High in St. Petersburg. "By the time they graduate (from high school), all of a sudden their ideas are changing a bit. Maybe they go to college and take a few classes. Or they start toward a degree but don't finish."

Then what? Another Pinellas high school graduate is out there without any real job training because vocational education still bears the stigma of shop class. The prevailing mind-set is college.

Fischer's students come to her program in their junior or senior year. Their previous training is limited to keyboard experience. "They are looking to get job experience. They are looking to work in an office." Courses to prepare the students include business organizational skills, management or accounting. Then there are one or two class periods of on-the-job training in which students leave school early to work.

Timika Smith was lucky that her friends at Northeast High School talked up the Business Cooperative Education program. Otherwise, she says, she might not have heard about it and decided to participate during her junior year last year and continue when her senior year starts this fall. But for the positive reports from other students, Smith, 17, probably would have missed the chance for a part-time job in the field she hopes will be her future: pediatrics.

"I would advise it to anyone, just for future reference. It helps out a lot," Smith said. She does clerical work at St. Petersburg Pediatrics and hopes one day to be a neonatologist, working with newborns.

Education's forgotten goal

U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that 20 percent of jobs in the future will require a college education, while 60 percent to 65 percent will require a two-year associate degree or technical training. That leaves 15 percent of future jobs for non-skilled high school graduates

"We are the only ones who teach careers, and we are elective," said Jerry Ditty, also of the Pinellas system, meaning vocational training is not required. Ditty supervises agribusiness, industrial and technology education. "Parents are the ones we are not reaching."

Ditty and Rick Wagar, supervisor of work force development and school-to-work in the Pinellas school system, spoke recently with several other vocational supervisors about the difficulty.

"Along the way we forgot that education is to get a job," said Wagar.

That disconnect shows up in the work force. Pinellas County businesses surveyed last year about employee prospects rated their chances of finding qualified workers as fair to poor. They blamed the public school system. The Pinellas County Business Education Taskforce, which was formed in response to the 1998 survey findings, just completed a followup study. It was much smaller but still showed that businesses consider it difficult or very difficult to find high-quality workers. The survey also identified 3,500 vacant jobs.

"Education should expect to turn out kids reasonably sound in basics," said Russ Sloan, president and chief executive officer of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. Businesses shouldn't have to "redo what should have been done in the first 12 years and what we are paying our taxes for." Sloan said the U.S. public education system is "too accepting of mediocrity."

Vocational supervisors in the Pinellas schools tick off program after program that offers training to students not planning on college: youth apprentice programs, career academies that function like magnet schools, school-to-work programs, business cooperative education, federal job training for youth at risk, business classes that include a variety of occupations. Pinellas Technical Education Center prepares high school graduates for the work force, as does St. Petersburg Junior College. SPJC also works with businesses to get them involved with the Pinellas schools.

The Pinellas school system's vocational education effort includes direct advice from business owners through advisory councils. The schools try to stay current in the type of training that area workers need to fill jobs. But they are not always as nimble as industry would like.

"Budget restraints keep us from responding as quickly as we would like to," said Joni T. Jonas, supervisor of business technologies and work force development. Part of the charge of the Business Education Taskforce is to help the county's vocation educational offerings be more market driven so training can be specific to the jobs available.

"The thing that hurt vocational education was the state cutting the seventh period (from the school day) and raising the academics needed," said Bill Swales, industry services specialist. "That caused a decrease in vocational offerings."

With technology moving as rapidly as it is in the work force, "35 percent of jobs students will have in the next eight years haven't been invented yet," said Wagar, the Pinellas supervisor of work force development and school-to-work programs.

The county Business Education Taskforce survey found that area businesses predict some 7,000 new jobs in the next three years, many of which will require four-year degrees but not all.

Blending with college

The vocational education supervisors stressed that getting job training does not eliminate a student from the college track. However, with the six-period school day and the academics required, it is not easy to fit in vocational education

Alexandra Balikowsky is going to college. But she also spent two years in the cooperative program at Northeast, getting experience working. "Once you have it, that's your backbone," she said of her work through the co-op. "People don't really know about the co-op. If a 16-year-old is going to go out and work, the best thing is co-op." Northeast's co-op program "teaches the basics," Balikowsky said.

Balikowsky is attending SPJC part time, studying for a two-year, associate degree in business. She plans to finish at a four-year school. Balikowsky also works at Sunset Entertainment in Pinellas Park, a job she got through the co-op. Sunset hires out disc jockeys to weddings and parties. Balikowsky does the payroll for subcontractors and the billing. Ultimately, she wants to own her own business.

Heritage Asset Management, a subsidiary of Raymond James Financial Corp., is one of the area companies that has hired Northeast students as part-time workers. "We hire on average two students a year from Debbie's group," referring to Fischer, said K.C. Clark, senior vice president for operations and administration for Heritage. "We've had a very high success rate with those who we hire in full-time positions."

Clark said he shared the sentiments of last year's survey respondents. "The average graduate is not at a level we like to see."

Most of the co-op students begin in clerical jobs at Heritage Asset Management, which advises a mutual fund group. Clark described three workers who now are full time. One reviews transactions to make sure they are done properly and recommends necessary action when they are not. Another supervises four or five workers who are processing trades for clients in mutual funds; the third worked two years part time as an accounting clerk and now is in a position where he can create his own accounting duties.

Clark said students who go on to college have time in which they learn to develop responsibility: getting to classes or living on their own for the first time. "That is what (students) miss in high school if they don't have jobs."

Fischer agrees. "If anything, working jobs gives direction. Not everybody is college inclined. Northeast is not a magnet school. We do cater to lots of average students."

Balikowsky disputes any notion that the Business Cooperative Education program is a lesser school track. "No, I felt it was advanced. It's not something everyone can do. You have to deal with school, and you have to deal with work. It's not easy."

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