Class of 2018: Career pathways leading graduates into 21st-century workforce

June 5, 2018
Santa Maria Times

By Mathew Burciaga

For many in the Class of 2018, graduation will mark the beginning of a new journey — one outside the confines of northern Santa Barbara and southern San Luis Obispo county high schools.

After the diplomas are handed out, caps are thrown and goodbyes are said this week, thousands of graduates will be anxiously waiting to start the next phase of their education at two- and four-year colleges or universities.

But for some, heading to college right out of high school may not be the best choice.

The rising cost of education — both public and private — can be a debt sentence for students, especially those uncertain of their field of study or future career. Others may financially have to support their family or have other obligations, preventing them from enrolling as part- or full-time students. Some may simply not want — or see the need — to go to college.

As a way of providing an alternative path to well-paying jobs in the community, local school districts have increased the number of career and technical education (CTE) programs offered at area high schools. Graduating seniors who complete one of the offered career pathways will leave high school with not just their diploma but the training and skills needed to be competitive in the constantly evolving workforce.

“We want to show the community that … they don’t need to hire out of the Santa Maria Valley — they can hire our students,” said LeeAnne Del Rio, CTE Incentive Grant coordinator for the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District.

“We’re really trying to break down the walls between our schools and provide what the industry wants and needs.”

Developing a framework

Formerly known as vocational education, educators at the state and local level — in consultation with industry professionals — have worked over the past decade to transform CTE programs into a viable path into the 21st-century workforce.

A set of standards was adopted in 2005, identifying 15 industry sectors — from agriculture and natural resources to transportation — and 58 possible career pathways for local seniors to follow. A two-year revision period began in 2011, ending with their adoption in 2013.

Since then, districts have worked to restructure their programs and course offerings to conform to the pathways and sectors. Agriculture and engineering, health science and medical technology and business and finance programs (among other offerings) have sprouted up in both the Santa Maria Joint Union and Lucia Mar Unified school districts.

Both districts are recipients of the CTE Incentive Grant, state funds dedicated to supporting career-oriented learning at local school districts. The multiyear grant provides districts the funds to expand pathway programs across budding or currently developed CTE courses.

“As a district … we began to pursue how to expand curriculum and education to give students the opportunity to explore skills and careers that will be well paying,” said Katie Salcido, director of curriculum projects for Lucia Mar Unified School District. “The goal of CTE [courses] is to expose students to those choices so they have a better understanding and can pursue a career that’s their passion.”

Calling the old standard of success — the phased out Academic Performance Index — “black and white,” Salcido said student success through the CTE program has been redefined to encompass additional postsecondary outcomes outside of college readiness and college attendance.

“Our old standards would say a lawyer is successful but an electrician is not,” she said. “We’re trying to get kids to understand that success is following your passions and pursuing what you’re good at.”

Cultivating success

Hunched over a table in Hector Jimenez’s welding classroom, Righetti High School senior Brandon Wiley demonstrated how to make a tee joint by carefully moving the torch of his MIG welder across two perpendicular steel plates. Wiley, who first took a welding class four years ago, credits Jimenez and Jim English, his former teacher, with spurring his interest in the field.

“When you grow up, everyone tells you you’ve got to go to college,” he said, “but with a good trade, you can make just as much, if not more money, without student debt.”

A study on undergraduate affordability conducted last year by the University of California Office of the President found that slightly less than half of all students — 47 percent — who completed their undergraduate education at a UC school in 2015 did so without accumulating any student loan debt. Those who did take out loans graduated, on average, with $21,000 in student loan debt.

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