BEAM: A Degree Isn’t The Only Ticket To A Job

John White, the state superintendent of education, isn’t a popular public official among members of the profession. However, he appears to have come up with a program with which many educators can agree.

The state Department of Education realizes there is a need for a high school diploma that is geared for something other than attendance at a four-year college or university.

White was at Sowela Technical and Community College last week to promote new emphasis on a career diploma for high school students. The Core 4 diploma will still prepare students for college, but a career diploma opens up other options.

“We need to do more to prepare kids for real jobs that exist in the Lake Charles-Southwest Louisiana area, so that if they’re not getting a four-year college degree they’re getting something that makes them successful and is the path to the middle class,” White said.

Wayne Savoy, superintendent of Calcasieu Parish schools, is no fan of White’s, but he said he likes the idea of diploma choices.

“I come from a blue-collar family,” Savoy said. “I know how important having a trade is and I know how important an education is. If we can provide opportunities for children in Calcasieu Parish, that’s what I want to do.”

The concept couldn’t have come at a better time. The Advocate wrote last week about a report put together by a working group of the Louisiana Workforce Council. It explains how business, industry, labor unions and government organizations can work together to supply the 86,300 industrial construction workers that will be needed in Louisiana by 2016.

Most of those jobs, 28,284, will be needed in the Lake Charles area. The metro Baton Rouge area will need 20,065 of those workers, New Orleans, 17,814, and the rest of the state, 20,137.

Curt Eysink, executive director of the Workforce Commission, said these jobs start at $15 to $18 per hour, but one of the goals is to move employees up to the journeyman level as quickly as possible. There is a great demand for skilled workers, and Eysink said the journeyman salaries range from $26 to $28 an hour.

Joe May, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said there is a new emphasis on training workers for skilled jobs that will be around for a while.

“We have people coming to us saying, ‘I want a job’,” he said. “Well, this is the closest direct route to a job.”

Neil Aspinwall, chancellor at Sowela, said the new diploma is desirable because it responds to the needs of business and industry. However, he said the career program needs to be “credible, viable and legitimate.” He called it “a great way to get our students involved quickly in the workforce.”

Connie Fabre, executive director of the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance, told The Advocate not enough students and their parents recognize the opportunities that exist in fields such as industrial construction.

“A good living can be made in skilled crafts or going to hairdresser school,” she said. “There are so many different avenues to making a good living.”

Even college graduates who are having a difficult time finding work are beginning to realize there are other opportunities. The Chicago Tribune wrote about Jessica Underwood, who graduated in 2010 from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis.

“I applied to anything I could find, sometimes filling out 10 applications a day,” she said. “But it was just a ticket to nowhere.”

The newspaper said three years after graduation Underwood “decided that she needed to reboot — and fast.” She enrolled in a paralegal certification program at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill. She said it gave her a chance to reinvent herself in only 18 months.

Sarah Cole, 25, did the same thing. She took a job at Columbia College at Chicago in the maintenance/engineering department while trying to figure her next move. The Tribune said, to her surprise, Cole liked the job. She signed up for heatingventilation-air condition certification at Harper College in Palatine, Ill. Students can earn their credentials in two semesters in a field where the median salary is $42,530 per year.

“Companies just don’t have the time to train people on the job anymore,” said Maria Coons, a Harper administrator. “So they come here, acquire additional skills and go to work.”

OK, so there is a newly appreciated route to a quick and effective way to be trained for a successful and rewarding job. And one of them is right here “under our noses” at Sowela Technical and Community College.

Unfortunately, Sowela doesn’t have everything it needs in order to train people for those 28,284 jobs that will have to be filled by 2016. The state has given the college $20 million for a building, but that doesn’t buy the equipment Sowela will need or pay the professors and instructors who will do the training.

More local, state and industry financial and other support is essential if Southwest Louisiana hopes to capitalize on the $40-plus billion that will be invested here over the next few years. It’s a golden opportunity that doesn’t come around often. The area needs to be fully prepared to “seize the day.”

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