THE bright, modern campus of Renton Technical College near Seattle seems to be almost a microcosm of the world outside:
One building is a garage where Jim Moore is teaching auto repair; he talks for a few minutes, but before 9 a.m. the students have dispersed to spend the bulk of the morning fixing half a dozen cars.
Nearby, the savory odor of cakes and cookies wafts through a kitchen where Bob Kuro and other students are learning to bake.
A few corridors away, several people are having their teeth cleaned by dental-assistants-in-training (who have practiced first for a few months on fake sets of teeth).
These are just three of about 50 occupational skills taught here, from construction to cosmetology. Unlike mainstream universities, the classes here put the students on center stage, with instructors like coaches on the sidelines.
``I believe in hands-on,'' electronics teacher C. J. Lemmon explains as he watches pairs of students build AM radio transmitters. Only when they successfully send a signal to a receiver in his car outside will the students move on to another lab project.
The Clinton administration and many economists are boosters of this kind of education as an increasingly crucial investment in America's labor force - especially as jobs become more learning-intensive.
``For the first time that I can remember there is a tremendous amount of interest ... across the board,'' in cultivating a higher-skilled work force, says Gerald Hayward, former deputy director of the National Center for Research on Vocational Education in Berkeley, Calif.
Not all of the nation's 1,200 technical and community colleges, serving about 6 million students, are as focused on this kind of occupation-specific training as Renton Technical. ``But the good news is that more and more colleges are ... moving more aggressively into work-force preparation,'' says Mr. Hayward, who now heads a think tank called Policy Analysis for California Education.
Yet vocational institutions remain at the low-end of the funding food chain.
``Only a small fraction of the total $68.4-billion federal education budget, primarily the $1.2 billion Carl D. Perkins Act, is currently going to vocational-technical education,'' according to a recent report by the National Coalition for Advanced Manufacturing.
At the state level, too, budgets are often tight.
``Our share of the state budget has been decreasing,'' says Bob Roberts, president of Renton Technical, which two years ago was named one of 14 exemplary vocational institutions in the nation. ``Our fear is that, in the future, we're not even going to maintain our current level of service.''
The state pays 77 percent of the college's $17 million annual budget. Students pay the rest in tuition. While state budgets have been pinched across the country, an additional threat here in Washington is a recently passed initiative that bars the state budget from growing faster than population and inflation. Demand for the services here may outstrip those broader gauges.
``We operate 46 programs. Forty-four of them are full, and many of those programs have waiting lists, some as long as two years,'' Dr. Roberts says. One reason for the demand: Teachers here say they are able to place almost all their students in jobs.
``There's all kinds of jobs out there. You just need experience,'' says Mr. Kuro, the baking student.
Technical colleges, which concentrate on ``the 85 percent of jobs ... that don't require a bachelor's degree,'' are not preparing people for less-desirable occupations, Roberts asserts. ``The typical student who comes to us is 31 years old, has an unstable work history, and they have arrived at the realization ... that they're going to need training'' to hold a good job, Roberts says. The people most likely to fall through the job-search cracks, he says, are the roughly two-thirds of high school students who are neither in ``true college prep'' nor in a vocational program.
While many technical-college students are older than traditional college age, these institutions are increasingly aiming to fill a niche in ``tech-prep'' programs that start with two years of vocational study in high school and lead to two years at institutions such as this. On top of this two-plus-two program, students may add another two years to earn a traditional bachelor's degree.
The rise of tech-prep programs is encouraged by legislation passed during the Bush administration. But ``the federal money is mainly start-up money,'' Hayward notes. ``So the states have to be figuring out now how they can stay in this business for the long run.''
In order to focus money on core needs - top instructors and up-to-date equipment - Renton Technical works to keep administrative costs to a minimum. A faculty of 154 served 13,000 students last year, or an equivalent of 4,000 full-time students. There are only 12 administrators, plus 88 custodians and clerical workers. Total cost per student/hour of instruction is only $5.
Another key to the college's success, Roberts says, is involvement of local businesses and graduates on advisory committees that oversee the curriculum and staffing of each program. The result, Roberts says, is classes where ``we don't graduate people just because it's the end of a quarter.''