School-to-Work Programs Raise Youths' Job Prospects

Con Edison's experience proves training teenagers for work benefits both sides

CONSTRUCTION supervisor Richard Lonergan was replacing a piece of electrical equipment at a Con Edison facility in Astoria, Queens, when the company sent him three high school students to work on the project.

The students were part of a cooperative education program, teaching them to become utility workers. But Mr. Lonergan's first thought was: "Just what I don't need - babysitting."

"Was I wrong," he says. The teenagers had been trained and came to work. Now, Lonergan says, "send me more of them."

If the secretary of labor has anything to do with it, Lonergan's experience may become a lot more commonplace.

On Aug. 5, the Clinton administration introduced the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. The legislation would:

* Provide development grants for all states to create school-to-work systems.

* Provide implementation grants to states which already have completed the development process.

* Establish the standards and goals of a national program. Improves job opportunities

The legislation, which was introduced in the House Education and Labor Committee and the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, has bipartisan co-sponsorship. Labor Secretary Robert Reich says a school-to-work "transition system is critical to improving the economic opportunities of young people." In the House, the bill has received the support of four Republicans, including Susan Molinari of New York. In the Senate, there are two Republican cosponsors.

Jerry Jasinowski, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers, terms the legislation "forward thinking." Organized labor worked with Mr. Reich in drafting the proposed legislation.

Some states and municipalities have already set up programs. Wisconsin has established an office of school-to-work transition within the state Department of Administration and the state has a youth apprenticeship program in printing and graphics. Boston has a partnership among the public high schools and the health and financial services industry. Cornell University runs a newly created apprenticeship program around Binghamton, N.Y.

The Con Ed program was begun three years ago at the urging of Robert Donohue, a Con Ed vice president, who wanted to give minority youths the opportunity to eventually become Con Ed employees. Working with six area high schools, the utility began training 10 students a year. "It is one way to recruit minorities, especially women in nontraditional jobs," says Pamela DelSonno, training administrator at Con Ed. As a result of the program, Con Ed now has seven female minority mechanics. Mechanical aptitude a plus

The students are recommended by the teachers and guidance counselors. The trainees must be at least 18 years old because of a state law which prohibits people under 18 from working around heavy construction equipment. In addition, Con Ed looks for students who have some mechanical aptitude and have taken shop or carpentry classes. Ms. DelSonno recommends that any other company considering a similar program establish a partnership with the best vocational schools in the area. "Try to establish a relations hip with the high school and don't let the bureaucracy get you down," she counsels.

For the first three weeks of the training period, the students work at Con Ed's facility in Queens. It is hands-on training with the students learning skills such as pipe bending, wiring techniques, and the running of heavy machinery. "We give them actual jobs we would do out in the field so that when they go out there they can carry on," says Richard Crispi, a construction supervisor and former instructor.

In fact, within weeks the students, who make $6.50 an hour, are working at construction sites. After his training period, Bronx student Alfred Incle found himself installing electrical cable for a transformer. Without the program, he believes, "I'd still be out looking for a job."

The students love the challenge. "You don't go dumb when you go out there - you have to use your brain," says Michelle Bryant, who was a cooperative student last year. Ms. Bryant, like most of the other participants, is enrolled in night college classes. Con Ed will pay virtually the entire tuition, if the student graduates.

Once the students graduate from high school they continue working for Con Ed, which pays them $10.60 an hour. They also begin training to pass the utility's own test to become classified as a Mechanic B, which starts at $12.50 an hour. If they pass the Mechanic A exam, they will start at $16.50 an hour. So far, 20 out of 29 accepted in the program over the past three years have remained at the utility.

DelSonno estimates it costs Con Ed about $2,000 per cooperative student. "You have to really want to do this," DelSonno says. "If we went out to the job market we could find very skilled people who would not require half the investment," she explains. She estimates Con Ed has 12,000 job applications in its files. Recently, the utility has had a hiring freeze. However, it has committed the funds to continue the program for seven students next year. "When you see the enthusiasm of the kids, you see there i s good reason to continue with this," she concludes.

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