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Putting Theory Into Practice

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Anitec--a manufacturer of film, paper, and chemical products for the graphic-arts industry--occupies 40 acres of downtown real estate in Binghamton, N.Y., a city near the confluence of the Chenango and Susquehanna rivers. The imaging-products division of the International Paper Company, Anitec has produced photographic materials since the Civil War era. On an overcast afternoon, middle-aged men and women can be seen heading into the plant to produce more than 5,000 different high-technology products.

Tucked away in a small room on the third floor of the research-and-development division, James Kasmarcik, a senior at Susquehanna Valley High School, punches some instructions into a computerized image-analysis system connected to an optical microscope. In the trade, he's conducting what's known as a "dot-quality analysis.'' Every printed photograph is composed of thousands of microscopic dots. The clarity of each dot determines the sharpness of the final image. With the help of the computer, James is comparing the quality of products under development at Anitec with those now on the market. James's coach and mentor, Kevin R. McMahon, hovers a few feet away.

"Everything that you're going to learn here is applied,'' James says, explaining what he likes about the Cornell Youth Apprenticeship Demonstration Project that brought him here. "You know why you're doing it and everything behind it. In school, it's a lot of theory. In school, if you're in biology, you learn how to use a microscope. But here, you learn why you do it and that you actually need it.''

A Clear Pathway

The demonstration project was begun by an unusual husband-and-wife team at Cornell University, located an hour's drive northwest of Binghamton. Stephen and Mary Agnes Hamilton launched the program in 1991, after spending a year in West Germany studying the German apprenticeship system. They were so impressed by what they saw that they decided to create a uniquely American version of youth apprenticeship.

Below the professional level, Stephen Hamilton explains, the American labor market tends to be quite "permeable''--people can move easily from one occupation to another without any formal credentials. The drawback is that, for many young people, the pathway to a successful career is relatively "opaque'': It's unclear how to get from here to there, or why additional education is important.

The Cornell Youth Apprenticeship Demonstration Project is designed to make such career pathways transparent. Participating firms, for example, provide diagrams that spell out for the student which careers each apprenticeship could lead to if the individual completed a high school, community college, or baccalaureate degree.

"I've been impressed by how easy it is for young people in the European countries that have apprenticeships to know what it is they have to do in order to achieve a goal ... and how it's really the opposite in comparable occupational areas in this country,'' says Hamilton. "There are no specific qualifications to be a manufacturing technologist or any number of other things, so you can move into those from almost anywhere. But how do you tell a 16-year-old what to do to prepare for it? If you tell them, 'Study hard now so that you can get a decent job 10 years from now,' it's pretty hard for them to take that seriously.''

'School Weary'

The fledgling program includes six school districts, 10 firms, and 46 students. But its potential contribution is much larger. That's because the Hamiltons are tackling a critical component of the school-to-work transition: how to create effective educational opportunities for students at work.

The commitment of employers to provide structured, on-the-job learning for young people is a central feature of the new generation of school-to-work programs.

"For a lot of kids, by the time they're 16 or 17, they're 'school weary,' as the Germans say,'' argues Stephen Hamilton, a tall, lanky professor of human development and family studies. "They've had basic arithmetic put on the board in front of their eyes for five or six years. They don't have it yet. Doing it for another two or three years isn't going to get it into them.''

"You take those same kids,'' he adds, "put them in a workplace with adults where sophisticated tasks are being done, where trigonometry is required, where people have to write clear and concise paragraphs, where they have to have problem-solving skills and cooperative-learning skills, and two things happen. One, they begin to learn some of those things that they missed in the classroom. And, two, they go back into the classroom with an understanding of why it's important and a renewed commitment to try to get what they can out of it.''

Students enroll in the four-year program during the junior year in high school and can remain through two years of community college. The program's aim is to recruit "middle students,'' who probably would not enroll in college without an extra boost. The firms determine their pay, which ranges from a $500 stipend per semester the first year to slightly above the minimum wage.

In exchange, students spend between 10 and 20 hours a week at the worksite, learning progressively more complex tasks under the guidance of adult coaches and mentors. A "mutual-expectations agreement''--signed by the apprentice, the school, the employer, and the parents--spells out the responsibilities of all parties.

By the time they complete the program, the teenagers have earned both a high school diploma and an associate's degree. Eventually, the goal is also to provide them with a nationally recognized skills certificate that would attest to their technical expertise.

James, who entered the program with little idea about his future, now plans to enroll at Broome Community College next fall and continue on in the apprenticeship program. Eventually, he would like to become an engineer.

The project offers apprenticeships in three occupational areas: manufacturing and engineering technology, administration and office technology, and health care. All three fields were selected based on national and regional labor-market analyses, which showed that they would grow substantially over the next decade. Many of the jobs that are projected require education and training beyond high school but below the level of a four-year college degree.

Anitec, like most of the firms in the program, joined the initiative based on a combination of altruism and self-interest. The typical Anitec employee is hired after two years of technical college, with a strong background in science and mathematics.

"We have a declining enrollment at the local community college in the field of chemistry,'' explains Lisa Wrobleski, Anitec's coordinator for the apprenticeship program, "and that is our main pool of potential technicians.''

The company's hope is that the program will eventually increase the number of young people headed into technical fields and encourage at least a few of them to return to Anitec. The firm is also using the program to recruit more women and minorities into fields where white males have traditionally predominated.

'Broadly Trained'

The primary task facing managers and front-line workers was how to determine what apprentices could learn at the job site. First, they identified the tasks they wanted young people to perform in their departments to be productive. Then, they stepped back and analyzed what students would learn from those tasks. Finally, they sequenced the tasks into a logical order, from the simplest to the most complex, so students could build on what they had learned.

Initially, all of the tasks were grouped into three types of competencies: technical, social, and personal. The social and personal competencies, which include things like teamwork and the ability to communicate, are now the same for all apprentices.

The technical competencies are clustered into two types of learning "modules.'' Within each occupational area, all students complete a set of core modules, such as computer use. Separate "elective'' modules may vary by firm or by the student's chosen area of specialty. These range from clusters of modules related to drafting or electronics, in the manufacturing area, to basic anatomical pathology and respiratory procedures at Lourdes Hospital.

Mary Agnes Hamilton, a self-effacing woman who has spent hours working with the firms to develop the draft modules, describes them as "building blocks'' that can be combined to create any number of career pathways.

"Ultimately, all of our firms aspire to a broadly trained employee, who's cross-trained and has multiple skills and an ability to learn,'' she says. "And that's what this kind of a structure--the modules--are trying to document.''

Each apprentice has a large three-ring notebook, called the "apprentice evaluation record,'' that follows him throughout his years at the firm. The notebook, which is constantly being revised, contains the modules that the apprentice is expected to master and serves as both a written learning plan and an evaluation tool.

Both the apprentice and the department manager periodically check off whether the youth has met, exceeded, or failed to meet the technical skills required. Managers can use the notebook to keep track of what an apprentice already knows and can do, and what he or she is ready to learn next. Interim evaluations, related to the social and personal competencies, are also completed on a regular basis and shared with parents, the schools, and the Cornell research team.

Front-Line Mentors

But while the learning modules serve as a guide, the actual task of instruction falls to front-line workers at the job site, who serve as both coaches and mentors to the students.

On a cold winter's day, Dawn McIntyre, an 11th grader at Windsor High School, is just a few weeks into her rotation in nuclear medicine at Lourdes Hospital. A technician is taking an X-ray scan of an elderly woman's head. As she works, she explains the procedure to Dawn, pointing out important features. Dawn also completes some of the steps herself, under the technician's supervision. Later, another supervisor, Mark Tomko, the chief nuclear-medicine technologist, explains to Dawn how to prepare the X-rays so that a physician can read them.

Both Tomko and Jim Connelly, a radiographer, say the experience has been beneficial for them, as well as for the students. "Some of the students aren't sure what they want to do,'' Tomko says, "so you're teaching them about your job, not just a technical skill. And it makes you think a lot about why you chose your profession.''

"The students that I've had,'' Connelly says, "asked a lot of good questions. I know that, because I've had to go find the answers a lot of times.'' Working with high school students, he adds, has boosted his confidence in supervising older students preparing to become X-ray technicians.

Teaching by Example

For all of the companies, the time involved in coaching and mentoring students has proved to be their biggest commitment, particularly in the beginning. When Robert Kage, the electrical-design group leader at Anitec, first began working with Blair Dury, a senior at Binghamton High School, on computer-aided drafting and design, it consumed eight hours of his week.

"I like to teach by example,'' Kage explains. "I like to take him out in the plant, show him why we're designing something, and show him the whole hierarchy, from conception to actual use. I know he's the type of person who will come to me and ask questions. And I will prompt him when I have to.''

But after five months, he says, "Boy, I'd like to have him here 40 hours a week, if I could get him. He's become a real asset to the group.'' Blair, for example, helped create a computer data base for maintaining the light and power panels in the plant. It was tedious work, says Kage, that wouldn't have been accomplished without him.

"This is not a gift of minimum wage to a kid,'' Stephen Hamilton remarks. "They're earning their keep. And I see that as really crucial, because this isn't going to work if it's based on altruism.'' But, he adds, "there has to be an optimal balance between the work and the learning. If it becomes a way for employers to get cheap labor, that's not right either. ... There's a real fine line to be drawn.''

Most apprentices soon learn that any job--whatever the title--contains its share of drudgery. But the trick is to insure that work experiences for students are primarily learning activities that continue to challenge them over time. Joseph D'Abbracci, the director of human resources at Lourdes Hospital, says: "Sometimes, what happens with these kids, quite honestly, they get stuck somewhere, and they're forgotten about. They're not learning any skills. They're a 'gofer.'''

One way the program tries to handle such issues is by designating a firm coordinator at each worksite. The coordinators oversee all aspects of the program at the firm, including recruitment, the preparation of coaches, any group training of apprentices, and student evaluations. It's the coordinator's job to design and manage an apprentice's learning plan and to move him from one department to another when he's ready. The length of a student's stay within a particular area of a firm can range from 10 weeks to a year within a large, complex department. Firm coordinators are also the primary connection to the schools.

Social and Personal Skills

The upstate Medicare division of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Western New York processes Medicare health-insurance claims and provides customer services to more than 1.6 million beneficiaries and 21,000 health-care providers and suppliers in upstate New York. Much of its work is done under tight deadlines, in the face of constantly changing federal requirements. Some managers were concerned about how well a young person would fit into that environment.

Today, student apprentices working for the division are doing everything from helping recoup money from companies that Medicare has mistakenly paid as a primary provider to working in staff development and filing electronic claims forms.

But one of the biggest issues has been addressing the social and personal competencies students need to succeed in the workplace. It was a problem that the Hamiltons could have predicted. In an earlier study of adult workers, they found that new employees who came into the workplace without such skills frequently failed and left.

The problems are as simple as showing up on time, punching a time clock, and calling an employer if you're not going to work that day. In addition, says Mary Agnes Hamilton, students on the job are expected to take some initiative, not just wait to be handed an assignment. "So you run up against a problem,'' she says, "and you can't solve it. Well, you go seek someone out. That's not necessarily learned in school.''

In some cases, the firm coordinators have stepped in and requested meetings with an apprentice, his or her parents, and the school to clear up potential problems.

Darlene Hornbeck, a coach in the benefits-integrity division of Blue Cross and Blue Shield, which determines if a provider has been overpaid for services, says apprentices "are a little more rough around the edges than training someone who's been in the company and is a little more mature.'' But, she adds of her current apprentice, Laura Walsh, a junior at Susquehanna Valley High School, "She works right along and does exactly what we do.''

The School Role

There is also a part-time coordinator at the school who acts as a kind of case manager for students. These individuals, who range from principals to vocational teachers, are appointed and financially supported by the school districts. They communicate with firms and parents, work with guidance counselors on scheduling, handle the initial recruitment and screening of students at the school, and encourage school-based learning that is related to a student's work experiences. Ideally, the Hamiltons say, the school coordinators should also insure that students are planning for their future, that they are taking the appropriate academic courses, and that problems are dealt with swiftly and appropriately.

Because the program currently has so few apprentices, spread among so many schools and occupational areas, there are no separate academic classes for the students. But each school has an advisory group, led by a teacher or counselor, that helps the youths reflect on what they are learning on the job. Most seniors also complete special projects that are related to a work issue, under the supervision of their coach and an academic teacher, for which they receive academic credit. The students also receive academic credit for their work-based placements.

Over time, the Hamiltons would like to see schools assume an even greater role. "The school role--and by school, I mean the high school and the community college--is essential for providing the discipline connected to the apprenticeship,'' Mary Agnes Hamilton says. "What we'd really like to see happen is that the schools develop career majors that can complement the work-based apprenticeship that the youth would have. And there would also be a closer articulation between the community college and the school, so that youths could take community-college courses while still in high school ... and the associate's degree would not be for seat time, but for competency.''

One of the biggest barriers on the school side has been scheduling so that students have the time to complete their apprenticeships and still take a full academic course load.

The 5 Percent Solution

When the project began, the Hamiltons recruited employers one at a time and managers department by department. Its partners now include eight of the 10 largest employers in the region, and discussions are under way with the remaining two.

But the Hamiltons are still struggling to move from a demonstration project to one that can be sustained and expanded over time.

That evolution involves targeting more employers, expanding the number of apprenticeship slots available, and adding training in new occupational areas. It also means finding an umbrella organization--other than Cornell University and the Cornell Cooperative Extension--to run the program.

The size of the participating companies ranges from 99 employees to more than 6,000. Yet, most hire only a few apprentices. The Hamiltons are trying to persuade firms to set aside a certain number of training slots each year.

"In Germany,'' Stephen Hamilton notes, "7 percent of the workforce is apprentices. I don't imagine we'll ever get to that point. But, if we had 5 percent of the workforce, that would accommodate something like 46 percent of the young people between the ages of 16 and 20. And that sounds pretty good. So we sort of use that 5 percent as a starting point.''

For now, that goal seems distant.

"At some point, I think, the volume of apprentices won't matter,'' says Terry Walsh, the director of human resources at Blue Cross and Blue Shield, "but right now, each one geometrically increases your effort. I think there will be a point when we're comfortable expanding out. But 5 percent--it's hard for us to imagine right now.''

"That would mean 55 or so for me,'' Joseph D'Abbracci of Lourdes Hospital agrees. "I couldn't fathom that.''

Of the 22 students who began the program in 1991, 20 had graduated from high school by June of last year and planned to continue their education along the same career pathways in which they had started. Two apprentices dropped out of school after the first semester because of transportation problems, personal problems, or course difficulties.

By last fall, eight of the nine apprentices who planned to enter four-year colleges had done so, as had eight of the 11 who planned to enroll in two-year colleges. One student entered a sheltered workshop in the same field as her apprenticeship; another enrolled in community college for the second semester and returned to the apprenticeship program.

To the Hamiltons, who thought they had designed a program that could insure a smooth transition, the loss of even a few students has been distressing. In the future, they hope to prevent such "slippage'' through more active advising of students during the spring semester of the senior year, the summer after graduation, and the first semester of college. They are also working to bring some young people back into the program.

Joseph D'Abbracci sees how the program has benefited students who have stuck with it, such as David Tolomei. David was a health-care apprentice at Lourdes Hospital who worked in the anatomical pathology lab, taking tissue samples and conducting analyses. He learned so quickly that the hospital hired him for additional hours during the spring and summer to offset personnel shortages. Although David has since gone on to Broome Community College's cytology program, he's been hired to work at the hospital part time. Eventually, D'Abbracci would like to hire him as a full-time cytologist.

"You recruit on a national basis, and you pray a lot,'' D'Abbracci says about such hard-to-fill specialties. "They're extremely difficult to find. And I'm hoping we'll have this guy all primed and ready to go.''

"If we get one hire like that,'' he adds, "it could make it worth it, because I could spend tens of thousands of dollars just to recruit somebody.''

In a recent report, Jobs for the Future identified 10 elements of quality work-based learning programs.

The report found that existing programs vary widely in the amount of time students spend at the worksite, the number of worksites they experience, the activities they undertake while there, the extent and complexity of the training they receive, and the centrality of work-based learning to the entire learning program. But the following 10 elements were common to all high-quality programs:

Key Elements

  • Partners formally agree on the goals of the work-based program and how to achieve them.
  • Student learning at the workplace progresses according to a structured plan.
  • Work-based experiences promote the development of broad, transferable skills.
  • School-based activities help students distill and deepen lessons of work experience.
  • Student learning at the worksite is documented and assessed.
  • The program prepares students to enter the workplace.
  • Students receive ongoing support and counseling.
  • The program provides orientation, training, and ongoing support to worksite and school staff.
  • Administrative structures are established to coordinate and manage the worksite component.
  • Mechanisms exist to insure the quality of students' work-based learning experiences.

Source: "Learning Through Work: Designing and Implementing Quality Worksite Learning for High School Students,'' by Jobs for the Future. Published by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, January 1994, as part of its School-to-Work Transition Project.

The "Learning To Earn'' series is being underwritten by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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