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As the state labor commissioner in Maine, John Fitzsimmons spent his time helping adults who were unprepared to make it in the new economy. So these days, the president of the Maine Technical College System is practicing some preventive medicine.

Through the Center for Youth Apprenticeship, located at Southern Maine Technical College, Fitzsimmons is reaching out to high school students early in their careers, showing them the connection between learning and earning and inspiring them to continue their education.

"I really believe, in my state, the future lies in the quality of the skilled workforce,'' explains the Rhode Island native, whose accent betrays his blue-collar upbringing. "We will not compete with a North Carolina Research Triangle or even with Massachusetts' Harvard and M.I.T. and their ability to be international research areas. We will be the producers of goods. And I take great pride in that, because if we're able to produce high-quality products, it will mean high-wage jobs for our people.''

By 2000, Maine has pledged to make youth apprenticeships available through every high school in the state. But what really sets the state apart is its decision to coordinate the program through its technical-college system, working in partnership with area schools and businesses.

Most experts agree that school-to-work programs in this country will not succeed without a firm footing in higher education. But Maine is one of the few states to give postsecondary institutions such a clear stake in the process.

Multiple Choices

The Maine Youth Apprenticeship Program is a three-year commitment that begins in the 11th grade and continues through one year of free tuition at a technical college--all while the student earns a weekly stipend.

Apprentices choose from a variety of career fields, including manufacturing, health-information services, computers, customer service, marine science, and banking and finance. During the three years, apprentices divide their time between school and work. Upon completing the program, they receive a certificate of skills mastery listing their technical competencies. They also get a certificate from the technical college that indicates they have earned enough credits to be halfway to an associate's degree and possibly a transfer to a four-year institution.

"What we're doing is opening up the whole world of postsecondary education for these kids,'' argues Gov. John R. McKernan, one of the program's staunchest advocates. "We need to realize that it is very hard to give youngsters the foundational education that they need and the additional skills necessary for a quality job in the modern economy in 12 years. And that's the problem with not having a postsecondary component.''

"Human nature being what it is,'' he adds, by locating the program in the technical colleges, "[the colleges] have a lot more incentive to make this work.''

The center is housed in a modest red-brick building, with a sagging wooden porch, on the Casco Bay campus. At the end of a paved parking lot, military fortifications remind visitors that the campus is the former site of Fort Preble, which served the nation from the War of 1812 until the early 1950's. Today, the center stands as a symbol of what many view as a new war for economic survival. One based not on weaponry but on the skills of American workers.

Clear Rationale

Many of the reasons for creating a strong tie between school-to-work programs and higher education are obvious. About half of America's high school graduates do not go on to college. Of those who do, only about half end up graduating. Yet, the wages and benefits of Americans without college degrees have been eroding rapidly. In the 1980's, the gap in annual earnings between high school graduates and college graduates doubled.

Maine officials estimate that, by the turn of the century, 85 percent of jobs in the state will require education and training beyond high school. The state now has about 6,000 openings each year for people with two-year, college-level technical degrees, far outpacing the supply of qualified workers. Nine of the top 10 fastest-growing occupations in the state also require education or training beyond the 12th grade.

Technical and community colleges seem ideally positioned to fill this void. Indeed, part of their mission is to prepare students for employment. Most also have direct ties to local businesses, for which they create customized training programs to upgrade the skills of the existing workforce. In fact, Fitzsimmons describes the two-year institutions as the "speedboats'' of the educational enterprise, able to create new programs on demand.

In January 1991, he and Governor McKernan traveled to Germany and Denmark to view those nations' youth-apprenticeship systems. They plotted the Maine program, insiders joke, on paper napkins on the flight back home.

Five months after the trip, the Governor announced the initiative to great fanfare. In February 1992, the Maine Youth Apprenticeship Program accepted its first 12 students. By this spring, the program had expanded to include some 100 students, 28 high schools, and 40 employers, including state government.

Ready Recruits

But it took a forward-looking college president to realize the initiative could offer significant benefits to the technical-college system.

One of the primary incentives, according to Fitzsimmons, is a pipeline of qualified students that will stretch far into the future. Teenagers apply to the program at the end of the sophomore year. As part of the application process, they submit a letter of introduction, two letters of recommendation, a rÀesumÀe, samples of their work, their standardized-test scores, a current report card, and a list of any awards they have received.

"The student that we're trying to target is the student who learns best by doing,'' says Jennifer Southard, the program's associate director. "And they may be many places on the academic scale, from the school's perspective.''

Participating businesses select which students to interview and decide whom to accept into the program. At least 50 percent of applicants do not get in. Apprentices then spend two years in what amounts to year-round education, between the high school and the jobsite. After that, they come to the community college with a year's tuition paid for by industry.

"If you had to go out right now in Maine and pick a group of people whom we'd love to recruit,'' claims Fitzsimmons, "there couldn't be a finer group.'' A steady stream of such students could reduce the need for remedial education, he contends, and enable technical colleges to move students through their programs faster and more effectively.

Increased Funding

The youth-apprenticeship program has also provided a new source of revenue for the technical colleges during tight financial times. The system's budget was cut just under 6 percent between fiscal 1990 and fiscal 1993--from $24 million to $22.8 million.

But last year, lawmakers appropriated $1.6 million for the Maine Youth Apprenticeship Program over a two-year period. They added another $1.5 million to the budget of the technical colleges for a "reskilling'' project designed to help the unemployed. This year, they have added $2.6 million to fund the creation of "quality centers'' to prepare unemployed and underemployed people for new and expanding businesses. Lawmakers have also agreed to add a seventh technical college to the system and have provided $300,000 in supplementary funding for the youth-apprenticeship program.

"In Maine,'' Fitzsimmons says, "and it's probably going to be true in other states that are coming out of a bad economy, there's a new era. And I've been defining it as a value-added era. It's extremely difficult to get state resources for the basic infrastructure. But if it's for a new concept that adds value to the state, there's great receptivity.''

State funding for the youth-apprenticeship program supports the center's work on skills standards and curriculum development. It also pays for full-time regional coordinators at each of the state's six technical colleges. The coordinators recruit students, schools, and businesses and provide overall management for the program.

A contract with the nonprofit Jobs for Maine's Graduates provides student-service liaisons in each region. The liaisons teach youngsters job-readiness skills, help them select college courses, support a student-led youth guild, and are supposed to keep in touch with apprentices for six to nine months after graduation.

Participating firms provide about $15,000 per apprentice over a three-year period, which covers a weekly stipend and a year of tuition. The center bills the firms monthly and then pays the students, whether they are in work or in school. Stipends start at $88 the first year and can rise to $108 in the third year of the program. Eventually, Fitzsimmons estimates, the program will cost about $1,800 per person in today's dollars, not counting the business contribution.

Added Benefits

By championing the program, the technical colleges have also garnered new political stature and marketability.

"In Maine,'' Fitzsimmons admits, "technical education, in all honesty, has not been on the radar screen.'' Total enrollment in the technical colleges is 4,300 full- and part-time students, compared with 34,000 in the university system. Its total funding is $22.8 million, compared with some $134 million for the seven universities.

"For the first time in our state,'' Fitzsimmons says, "under tech prep and youth apprenticeship, the Maine Technical College System is seen as the educational leader.''

"The other benefit for us,'' he adds, "is the direct tie to the business community. That can't be overstated. We've spent the last year and a half with the Governor going to every corner of the state talking to businesses about why they should be interested in youth apprenticeship and why people should be going on to the technical colleges as a good option. That's marketing that we could never, ever have bought.''

"It's also introduced us to all sorts of new businesses that, although they may have had some of our graduates, didn't see the direct connection with us,'' the college president says. "What we're finding is, once those doors are opened, the human-resource people, the C.E.O.'s, start to realize that we have many more things we can offer. So I expect a wonderful spin-off for our continuing-education divisions, just based on their wanting to upgrade their existing workforce.''

Credible Reputation

Parents and students have also found added credibility in the program's ties with higher education.

Diane Wescott, the mother of apprentice Matthew Burr, initially had some concerns about the program. "I had reservations about his missing his normal senior-year activities with his classmates,'' she says. "I also was afraid that it was seen as a program for kids who were not going on to college or were not capable of doing that.''

"I'm thrilled with it now,'' she adds, "because he has grown so much with it, and he's matured so much, and he's been given lots of opportunities I don't think he would have had in a normal setting.''

Matt, who attends Gorham High School, admits: "I wasn't a very hard-working student. I didn't do very much homework, but I got O.K. grades. I just wasn't putting in any extra.'' Now, the apprentice at D&G Machine Products Inc. has switched from general-track courses to advanced English, pre-calculus, and physics.

"Before, I never knew what an engineer needed to know,'' he explains. "But now, working with engineers at D&G and with machine tools, I get to learn what I need to know. Also, I wanted to. I mean, advanced English--I probably didn't need to take that--but it was just another challenge.''

The fact that apprentices must meet the same admissions standards as any other student has also added to the program's credibility. The technical colleges and participating secondary schools have collaborated to help students meet the college-admissions requirements by providing small-group and individual instruction when needed, with financial assistance from the center. At Southern Maine Technical College, for example, faculty members and high school teachers have taught teenagers everything from machine tooling to algebra II when students couldn't complete the courses at their home high schools.

A few students have also enrolled in regular college-level courses while still in high school. Bill Cassidy, the director of research and curriculum for the program, says the combination of high school and college-level work amounts to an individualized education plan for each apprentice.

"For the first time,'' Fitzsimmons says, "our faculty is sitting down with the secondary school system saying, 'If you're going to come into our nursing program, you must have this course of study.' What we usually get is somebody who graduates from high school, who says, 'Gee, I want to be a nurse.' And then you go back and check, and they haven't taken the courses.''

But the program is not for students who can't make it through college, emphasizes Jurgen Kok, the vice president and general manager of Nichols Portland, a manufacturer of automotive parts. "It is too demanding academically.'' Nichols Portland rejected 12 applicants for the apprenticeship program last year because it thought they lacked the prerequisite skills. And it rejected both of the applicants sent to the firm this year. "Many of the students who can't make it through high school, who are just barely hanging in there, will not succeed in an apprenticeship program,'' Kok insists.

The program has provided employers like Nichols Portland with a guarantee: If its graduates lack any of the skills attested to on the skills certificate, the technical college will retrain them at no cost to the company. The technical college where the student was enrolled will cover half the retraining cost; the Center for Youth Apprenticeship, the other half. The guarantee will be good for two years after the student graduates.

Kok, who is a product of the German apprenticeship system, is a firm believer in such programs. "When I think back,'' he recalls, "I remember how certain my future looked when I left high school. You knew that if you did well and kept your nose clean, you would be, in my case, a toolmaker. And you knew that toolmakers make pretty good pay.''

Powerful Disincentives

Yet, the obstacles to integrating community colleges into school-to-work programs may be just as strong as the incentives. In most cases, the first groups of students to participate in such programs have yet to make the transition from high school to college.

Although in many ways community colleges may be ideally situated to coordinate school-to-work programs, Richard Kazis, the vice president for policy and research at Jobs for the Future, suggests, certain disincentives cut the other way. The very flexibility of community colleges, he argues in a paper prepared for the American Association of Community Colleges, may work against "carefully sequenced, rigorous postsecondary occupational programs.''

Because state funding mechanisms create an incentive to keep credit-hour costs as low as possible, he says, they favor a high volume of enrollments over smaller, more advanced classes or the provision of counseling and support services.

As community colleges struggle to keep their costs down, they may also tend to hire part-time instructors, making it even more difficult to expect any coordination and coherence among course offerings and sequences. Indeed, many instructors teach older students and lack the time or inclination to coordinate services with businesses or area high schools.

Most two-year institutions, Kazis asserts, do not see the need to change their programs or pedagogies just yet. "And, not inaccurately for now, they see these programs as high school reform efforts with few pedagogical implications for two-year colleges.''

Meanwhile, the high schools have been slow to alter their way of doing business as well. Most high schools have fewer than five students participating in the program; the largest has 11. With so few apprentices, high schools so far have found little incentive to change their own instructional offerings.

Faculty Anxieties

Maine will confront many of these challenges this fall, when the first group of students make the shift from high school to college.

During their third year, the apprentices will continue to divide their time between school and work. Yet, they are expected to complete the equivalent of a year of study, just like students who attend community college full time. That's because the colleges have agreed to recognize skills and knowledge learned on the job as equivalent to completion of some college-level courses.

Many faculty members are wary, however, about providing college credit for learning over which they have no direct control. "There was quite a bit of anxiety among some individuals about how this is going to work,'' says Durward R. Huffman, the president of Northern Maine Technical College.

"We're talking about these students acquiring the same competencies as a student going through the first year of an associate's degree, but without completing the same number and kind of courses,'' adds Huffman, who serves as chairman of a task force on the articulation of youth apprenticeship to the technical-college system. "It's just the method of acquiring those competencies that we're adjusting.''

The key, according to those involved, is the development of standards that outline what an apprentice in an occupational cluster should know and be able to do, and how well he should be able to do it. Those standards, which are now under development, will form the basis for the curriculum and for the skills certificate. A "meister,'' or master, who works with the student at the jobsite, will then be able to check off when an apprentice has achieved certain competencies.

But it will be up to each of Maine's six technical colleges to match work-based learning with the skills attained through various courses. Each campus will also determine which program degree matches an apprentice's on-the-job placement. Although some apprenticeships closely mirror existing occupational majors at the technical colleges, others do not. In such cases, the technical colleges will have to create a customized educational major and award a "general technology'' credential.

Integrating an apprentice's course and work schedules may prove equally vexing. And Huffman, at least, predicts that apprentices will not be able to take advantage of some of the extracurricular and social aspects of college life because of the demands on their time.

Finally, some faculty members resent that money is going into youth apprenticeships instead of buying new equipment for their classrooms. Older staff members are also leery of being asked to teach something different or being held to new industry standards.

Healthy Competition

So far, participants seem confident that they can overcome such problems. The technical-college system is even developing a training curriculum for meisters, in collaboration with Jobs for the Future. Workers who complete the program could eventually earn an associate's degree.

By next year, the apprenticeship program is expected to at least triple in size, to about 300 students. By the end of the decade, it could serve as many as 1,000 youngsters. Eventually, state officials expect 25 percent or more of high school juniors and seniors to participate in youth apprenticeships.

But as the program grows larger, it begins to tread on some vested interests. "The initial pilot really got rave reviews,'' Fitzsimmons says. "Now, as people realize that this is going to be a very big program over time, the ones who are a little threatened by it step out.''

Vocational educators, in particular, are nervous that community colleges are usurping their role. At least some businesspeople, like Kok, have suggested that serious technical education is best handled outside of high schools. "High schools aren't very good at teaching trades, in my opinion,'' he says. "They're getting out of their league.''

Commissioner of Education Leo G. Martin optimistically describes such tensions as "healthy competition between the youth-apprenticeship program and vocational education. The youth-apprenticeship program is seen as the flagship, but it has served to help all of the other programs upgrade themselves as well.''

John Fitzsimmons and Governor McKernan would also like the rest of higher education to come on board--either by insuring that apprentices could transfer into four-year institutions or by moving them directly into a four-year college for their third year of training. "We want everyone who goes into an apprenticeship to understand that you can be like the youngster in Germany, who gets a banking apprenticeship and then goes and gets a four-year degree and is the most sought-after person in the country,'' McKernan claims. But there are no formal commitments.

"Your neck is a long way out,'' Fitzsimmons sighs, "and there is no safety net right now.'' But, he adds: "In our colleges, and across the country, we take great pride in the new average age of the returning student,'' which in the Maine Technical College System is 27. "What it means is that people have been in dead-end jobs for a decade. And they're finally having to re-engage in education to find anything that they and their families can survive on.''

"It's kind of a sad commentary.''

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

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