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Oakland Schools Go Back to the Future With Vo-Tech

Oakland has revitalized its vocational tech programs, recognizing that the "college-for-all" craze failed to train youth for well-paying, skilled-trades jobs.

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Similar provisions exist for construction projects at the city of Oakland and Peralta community colleges that require contractors to hire locally first, Beesley said. "And Oakland is going through a massive construction boom," he noted. "We are starting to look like San Francisco right now with the number of cranes and high-rises going up, and the vast majority [of people] doing that work do not live in Oakland, because Oakland has not been producing people to do that work. Most from come from the Central Valley and other places."

The district also is working to address the gender gap in the skilled trades and advanced manufacturing by partnering with Oakland-based Tradeswomen Inc., whose mission is to address gender inequity and create inclusive cultures in the skilled trades. Currently, less than 3 percent of labor force in the skilled trades is female, though the Oakland school district's project labor agreement specifies that it should be 20 percent — and the group's goal is to bring that amount to 20 percent in 2020.

In August 2016, the school board passed a policy to start a Workforce Development Fund, through the project labor agreement, which requires that 20 cents of every work hour by each worker at a district construction project be paid by the general contractor into a district fund, especially earmarked to help educate kids in the skilled trades and advanced manufacturing to address these shortages, Sanchez said. So far, it's earned only $12,500, but he hopes that over time, the fund can accumulate enough to help expose kids to these often overlooked, high-growth and lucrative career fields, he said.

"We hope to at least double the amount during this academic year given the projects in progress at OUSD, and use of those some funds to do some career exploration work, as well as pay for items to support programs in skilled trades, i.e., buy hard hats and work boots for students," he said.

It's been at least a couple decades since the vast majority of Oakland students got any exposure to anyone in their K-12 education who knew anything about the merits of going into the skilled trades. Rather, they generally had teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators who all graduated from college — and that's all they knew to counsel kids toward, when it came to future careers, too, Sanchez said.

But all that changed at Skyline with the hiring of Nick Beasley. He was an English teacher for three years at the school, before starting to teach full time in industrial arts program at Skyline's Fab Lab this year.

He says he grew up in the union hall, with his dad working as a roofer and many others in his family in the skilled trades. And although he enjoyed teaching English, he said the satisfaction he gets from teaching kids about the skilled trades goes far beyond what he experienced teaching students about Shakespeare, Hemingway, writing, and rhetoric.

"In English class every year, I might be trying very hard to help kids to make a grade-level-or-two improvement in their reading or writing, but enlightening a kid to a whole career spectrum is huge, and these are massive gains for them," he said. "When I have a kid realize there are so many different opportunities out there, they have a different outlook on what their potential is."

Nearly 30 years old, Beasley also said he has a lot of friends who are going into the skilled trades now after doing contract work in white-collar jobs in public relations and advertising. "A lot of people see the appeal of blue-collar jobs, where the jobs are stable and you can support yourself and they are not all erratic, because you're not working for startups.

"The pay, the benefits, and the stability are huge," he continued. "We think of blue collar as lower class, but you look at these paychecks, you realize a lot of these white-collar jobs aren't really paying as well, and the benefits aren't as generous. And so many people leave college with massive debt. But I know a lot of electricians that got paid to go to school, and now they are working in a trade that pays them quite a bit."

At times, both Beasley and Sanchez admit it has been a struggle to get everyone to see the value of skilled trades and advanced manufacturing classes as part of the linked learning, because those career pathways are considered to be all college track.

"I'm not going to lie and say it's been easy," Sanchez said, explaining that "there's still a stigma attached" to construction work. "But my work has been working with individuals and trying to show them that skilled trades also are applied math and sciences. It's all part of the same realm — architecture, construction, and engineering. All three go together. You can't have one without the other, and there's just no success without the other. If an architect designs something, but there's never an engineer, and it never gets built out, all he did was a nice drawing and stuff."

Because Oakland's skilled-trades classes are taught within a college-track pathway, such as engineering, architecture, and sustainable design academies, it's hoped that there will be less concern over tracking — though it's always something to be careful not to do, he said. Even still, the bigger challenge at first might be helping kids overcome the stigma of choosing to pursue their passion — in the face of still lingering prejudices against blue-collar careers.

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