Boeing Program Moves Voc. Ed. to a New Plane
The classroom is well hidden, tucked behind rows of electronic switchboards that eventually will grace the cockpits of Boeing 737 and 757 airliners, inside a building that looks identical to others in the maze of grayish aluminum warehouses on the industrial outskirts of Seattle.
Today, about 30 middle-class, mostly white, mostly male high school students in attendance are learning about subjects most teenagers never ponder: union dues, retirement accounts, and other Boeing Co. benefits.
They are in the unusually situated classroom thanks to an education-business partnership--the kind of partnership at the crux of a national debate on vocational education. Both the Boeing program and the reauthorization of the main federal vocational education law being considered by Congress try to beef up vocational studies by strengthening their academic content and providing links with higher education and stronger connections with business.
Last year, an attempt to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Vocational-Technical Education Act failed after protests from conservative groups over, among other issues, business involvement in schools. This year, however, the House already has passed its version of the reauthorization, HR 1853, which would require states to set benchmarks and assess vocational education students' academic and vocational proficiencies. The Senate is working on similar, related legislation. ("Draft Senate Bill Links Voc. Ed. To Job Training," Sept. 3, 1997.)
All of this matters little to three classes of about 75 students each handpicked for Boeing's summer-internship program. Over the course of three years, interns spend four to six weeks of their summers working for the huge aircraft manufacturer, which considers the program partly an investment in its future workforce and partly community service. The students are paid $1,000 for every four weeks of their manufacturing internships, which include progressively more complex work as students move into their second and third internship summers. After three years, some are offered full-time jobs with the company.
The Boeing internships are part of a larger internship program in the greater Puget Sound area near Seattle. Called Tech Prep, the program has parallels with the generic term "tech prep," referring to technical-preparation programs that typically link the last two years of high school with two years of community college and enable students to earn a technical degree. Such programs may include learning in the workplace and typically incorporate applied academic curricula that focus on teaching using real-world examples.
The Puget Sound initiative began in 1993 and is run by a coalition of about 20 area employers, as well as representatives from labor unions, educational affiliates, and local government, called the Manufacturing Technology Advisory Group, or MTAG. The group received start-up funding from the federal government. Participating companies gave internships to 259 students this summer.
Boeing--Seattle's largest employer, with 100,000 workers--and other MTAG companies launched Tech Prep after having problems finding qualified high school graduates to fill jobs. They also wanted to prod local high schools into teaching more relevant workplace skills for what Boeing estimates are the 80 percent of Puget Sound-area students who never obtain a four-year college degree. About 48 percent of Washington state's 1994 high school graduates enrolled in a two- or four-year college that year, according to the state's higher education department.
What About Gettysburg?
The consortium worked with local schools to draw up a core curriculum and supplied teaching kits to add "applied academics" to school offerings. Applied courses, used in many vocational programs across the country, use real-life examples to make learning more relevant for students.
Before applying for Tech Prep, students must have completed or enrolled in at least one applied course, whether in math, science, communications, or studies related to workplace skills.
From the more than 400 Puget Sound-area high schools that offer such classes, Boeing selects only 15 each year to participate, then uses teacher recommendations and interviews to choose about 75 students for the program. On average, only one of every three applicants is accepted from the chosen schools. Boeing officials say they strive for diversity in their program. Thirty percent of the interns this summer were female, and 26 percent belonged to minority groups.
By many accounts, the Boeing internship program is the Cadillac of tech-prep programs. Under a U.S. Department of Education proposal for the Perkins Act reauthorization, more federal money would go to pay for tech prep.
In testimony to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee last spring, the Education Department's top vocational education official told members that most vocational training programs have not kept up with changing job market needs.
"No longer can our students succeed with only academic or only technical skills," said Patricia W. McNeil, assistant secretary for vocational and adult education. "Students need a combination of academic skills and technical skills, and the ability to keep on learning throughout a lifetime."
Boeing looks for bright, motivated students who aren't interested in or can't afford to attend a four-year college. The company does not set a minimum GPA for interns. "If a student is going to go on and get a four-year degree in engineering, this program is not for them," said James Murphy, Boeing's Tech Prep director.
The company's ideal is someone like third-year intern William Stock, 18, who joined the program after his junior year of high school and now attends a local community college. Mr. Stock said he has always enjoyed taking vocational classes and wants a "hands on" career. At Boeing, he has used skills he learned in applied-academics classes much more than others, he said.
"Once I get out into the job force, it's not going to be every day where I wish I knew about the Battle of Gettysburg," Mr. Stock said.
It is just such an attitude that worries some observers.
Phyllis Schlafly, the president of the Eagle Forum, a conservative organization based in St. Louis, maintains that businesses should expect students to be well versed academically, but should be solely responsible for training for specific job duties. "I don't think companies should induce schools to [adopt] their training programs so taxpayers pay for training that an employee would normally get," she said in an interview.
She is troubled by business involvement in the school curriculum, she said, because of her belief that businesses want to turn undereducated students into "compliant workers" rather than allowing them to study non-work-related, back-to-basics subjects.
But in the Issaquah, Wash., district, southeast of Seattle, administrators are looking at the Boeing program and other out-of-school activities as ways to give students lessons outside the classroom, said Fern Miller, the director of career and vocational-technical education for the 11,500-student district.
Issaquah school officials have worked with Boeing and other companies to create short-term internships and other opportunities for students, and the Boeing program has become a model.
Mike Newman, the director of education technology and vocational education for the 13,000-student Auburn, Wash., district about 20 miles south of Seattle, has seen Boeing's Tech Prep program increase students' motivation and ambition. "It raised the standard for those kids [in the program] and raised their expectation of what they can do," he said.
As part of the program, Boeing also brings in about three dozen teachers from area high schools and community colleges each summer. The teachers spend six weeks shadowing Boeing employees in quality-control jobs and other factory posts, then go before a team of operations managers and supervisors to explain what they learned and how they will apply it in the classroom.
Lori H. Franck said she considers the program just another kind of professional development. "We're not trying to 'Boeing-ize' the schools," said Ms. Franck, a science teacher at Ballard High School, a suburban Seattle school with about 1,050 students. "Students--and teachers--need more opportunities to see what goes on outside the classroom."
Jack S. Babani, who heads the math department at Seattle's 1,700-student Garfield High School, said the experience opened his eyes to career opportunities at Boeing, something he'll keep in mind when counseling students on careers.
Of the first 100 students to complete the Boeing program last year, more than 70 have been offered jobs with the company, typically paying between $27,000 and $29,000, Mr. Murphy said.
Mr. Murphy said Boeing plans to double the number of new student interns next summer 1998 by creating another program in engineering technology for about 75 high school juniors.
That's good news to many.
"It's a great program for the kids that can get in there," said Kim Kubiak, the executive director of the National Association for State Directors of Vocational and Technical Education, based in Washington, D.C. "The numbers are very low, though, when you look at the size of the organization and the number of feeder schools."
Mr. Newman said he would like Boeing to offer more diverse high school internships, in areas such as marketing. By requiring students to take applied-academics classes, Boeing may have missed hiring many highly qualified candidates in other classes, he added.
For the students who made the cut and completed the program this year, many found there are no guarantees that a job will be waiting.
"We weren't supposed to go into this with expectations" of being hired, said Nick Sardo, 20, who last week was waiting to hear if he'd get a job as a quality-assurance inspector at Boeing. "But we have a lot riding on this internship. We all have a lot of hopes."