UNTIL the 1970s, career options were plentiful in western Pennsylvania. If young people didn't go to college, they could earn good money working in the steel mills or coal mines.
Then steel mills closed and coal mines modernized, meaning fewer jobs. So the message went out: Go to college to get ahead. There was only one problem. Many college-bound students didn't get ahead.
In Pennsylvania, better than two-thirds of those who enter college don't get a degree by age 27. Even those who do can't always find good jobs. An estimated one-third of the students in Pennsylvania community colleges these days are college graduates who have come back to improve their technical skills.
So a new message is going out in this state and elsewhere: Get technical training. The implications of this shift are just starting to sink in.
``The point is that our schools are designed primarily to send kids to college,'' says Ferman Moody, Pennsylvania's director of vocational-technical education. ``And we're finding out that many of the kids that go to college ... may have been better off in getting technical competencies along the way.''
That conclusion is backed up by a study released today by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC), a nonprofit social policy research organization based in New York City. ``High schools often provide weak preparation for post-secondary education and training ... and little exposure to the skills that are required in an increasingly technical labor market,'' the report says. But ``it is feasible to create and operate innovative programs that combine learning in high school and in the workplace.'' These programs are known as school-to-work initiatives.
Support for such programs ranges from grass-roots experiments to federal legislation. On Tuesday, the United States Senate approved by a wide margin a $300 million School-to-Work Opportunities Act, following the lead of the US House. President Clinton is expected to sign the measure.
These programs differ from traditional vocational education because businesses are much more involved in designing the curriculum. While some schools are revamping their vocational programs, others are starting completely new ones. For example:
* ``Career academies'' take high school students through a three- or four-year program. It links academics with the study of a particular industry. Local employers offer mentors and summer internships.
* Occupational-academic ``cluster programs'' in Oregon and elsewhere are usually larger-scale programs that give high-school students a choice of studies related to a cluster of industries (like the environment).
* ``Tech prep'' experiments emphasize technology-related courses and hands-on problem-solving. Typically, the courses are set up so students can make an easy transition to a community college.
* Youth-apprenticeship initiatives are the most work-intensive experiments because students spend a good portion of their time working as paid apprentices in local businesses.
``Kids in the past that weren't prepared for college were often prepared for nothing,'' says Edward Pauly, co-author of the MDRC report. ``These programs offer them new opportunities.''
While most of these experiments are too new to fully evaluate, they do seem to be encouraging students to further their education.
For example, 9 of 11 graduating seniors of the West Bend, Wis., youth apprenticeship program are going to technical college or a four-year college. When they entered the course 1 1/2 years ago, 5 of 11 said they wouldn't go on, says apprenticeship coordinator Marilyn Orlopp. Here at the Western Area Vocational-Technical School in Canonsburg, Pa., pupils in the new youth apprenticeship program are also upbeat.
``I have been doing a lot better'' in classes, says Casey Adams. Instead of B's and C's in his regular high school, he's been getting B's and thinks he's in line for one or two A's. ``I'm going to use the stuff I am learning,'' he explains.
Classmate Max Oravetz shows up to class in white pants and a tie. ``This is what I have to wear to work now,'' he says. He has just rotated into the computer-aided design department of his employer, Miles-Hennecke Machinery in Lawrence, Pa. Like the rest of the apprentices here, he works two full days a week at $5 an hour and spends three days in the classroom.
Miles-Hennecke also likes the program. ``We need good, well-trained people in order for our business to thrive,'' says Paul Eiben, the company's manufacturing manager. ``The best way that I know to do it is not through the classroom but learning by doing.''
Despite these reviews, it's unclear how many students youth apprenticeship will be able to serve. While school officials here say they're not having problems recruiting employers, other programs are struggling to place their apprentices.
Another obstacle is the stigma attached to vocational education. That's changing only slowly.
``Kids are beginning to see that to be successful, everyone doesn't have to go to college,'' says Donald Strang, project coordinator for Canonsburg's youth apprenticeship program. But ``you know the first thing that parents talk to their kids about? Going to college.''