July 28, 2014

Editor's Page

Six of 10

Mark R. Howard | 4/1/2006

Nick Miller Inc. is a 20-year-old firm in Palm Beach Gardens that's in the business of land surveying, mapping and land acquisition consulting. Technology, GPS in particular, has changed the way the firm does its work, but basic surveying still involves workers who have to stand in fields, in back yards the street and take measurements -- whether with measuring tapes, laser-sighting equipment or the telescope-ona- tripod instruments called theodolites.

Stephen Gordon, the firm's 34-year-old president, says one of his toughest challenges has been hiring the "survey technicians" who do that fieldwork. The entry-level survey tech jobs don't require college degrees, but the jobs aren't high-profile and don't attract many applicants. There's not much of an established pipeline into the field -- no training curriculum in either local high schools or community colleges, for example. The surveying firms have to hire on a prayer and train their new workers on the job. Through his professional association, the Florida Surveying and Mapping Society, Gordon was aware that other surveying firms also had a tough time finding survey techs. And so he was quick to participate when a group of a half-dozen firms got together to solve the problem.

The local community college was receptive to the idea of creating a training curriculum, but Gordon says the program would have taken too long and focused too much on academics rather than practical skills. So the companies got together with a private firm called Florida Training Services and developed a two-year apprentice program that combines on-the-job training and year-round class work. The apprentices "get twice the stuff in half the time," Gordon says. Local surveyors teach courses at FTS, and FTS employees monitor the on-the-job portion of the training. Both state and federal governments recognize the certification that comes with the apprenticeship.

The program has only been operating since November, but the feedback from participants and employers is "excellent," Gordon says. "We're already starting to see a difference in what our employees are understanding in terms of their jobs." Since techs will be more productive sooner, Gordon will be able to start them at $11 an hour instead of $8 or $9, and he says graduates should be making $15 an hour within two years -- not bad, particularly when compared to most entry-level jobs available to high school grads, and in any event "better than McDonald's.''
The survey tech apprenticeship is particularly relevant in a state where funding for career education, by some measures, only amounts to about 5% of total education funding -- and where six of every 10 ninth-graders either drop out of high school or don't go on to college if they finish high school. Those statistics are a scandalous reflection on our educational system. Imagine a business providing an essential service -- a power company, for example -- that did such a poor job that 60% of its customers chose to get off the grid.

But in one way, the dropouts' behavior is economically rational: Some 60% of the new jobs in Florida over the next five years will -- like the survey tech job -- require less than a bachelor's degree. If students conclude they're destined for a "service" job -- and if they believe that all "service" jobs are low-wage and low-skill -- they may well question the return from sticking around for another year of high school. Why stay? McDonald's, after all, still pays better than American history class.

Part of the answer is students learning that not all service jobs are the same. "People keep saying 'service jobs' and they talk about working at McDonald's and Wal-Mart,'' says Gordon. Other, more interesting, better-paying "service" jobs -- whether in the construction trades, surveying or the computer field -- "are just not visible."

A bigger part of the answer will come if middle schools and high schools can provide a more work-relevant experience for students who aren't on the college track. Efforts are already under way in some districts: The Okaloosa County School District's CHOICE program offers nationally certified career tracks that include pre-engineering, pre-architecture, the construction trades and information technology. Programs, which are set up in partnership with the local Workforce Development Boards, involve three hours of instruction each day for students in their junior and senior years.

Gov. Jeb Bush, who has seen how academic gains in elementary school tend to slow in middle school and then stall out entirely in high school, has proposed a statewide plan. Bush wants students to choose a direction for themselves in the 10th grade and wants schools to structure more rigorous, focused curricula that will help kids get to a job they want -- or at least teach enough practical skills that students will see value in investing more time in school.

That approach may have promise, although local districts will tend to slap new labels on existing programs rather than truly re-engineer the way their schools operate. Which is why efforts like the survey tech apprenticeship are so worthwhile: They're models for what's possible with a little effort, almost no bureaucracy and a focus on results rather than process.

They can also create momentum in getting businesses, even relatively small businesses, to engage effectively with schools. Gordon and his fellow surveyors are now trying to get the survey tech apprenticeship integrated into a local high school -- a charter school in Riviera Beach -- "so that students in junior and senior years will be able to graduate as certified survey technicians and roll right into these jobs," he says.

For Florida, re-engineering high school shouldn't mean losing focus on the need to educate kids for college and the high-wage, high-skill jobs that will be essential to a healthy economy in this century. It should mean a better link between school and economic opportunity for kids who may or may not go to college later but won't go now. And right now, that's six out of 10.

Tags: Politics & Law, Editor's column, Around Florida, Education

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