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Vocational students retooling career plans

Weak market prompts seniors to consider alternatives

By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / May 14, 2009
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They've worked hard for four years, training for specialized jobs, but some of them may soon find themselves both out of school and out of work.

And they're only 18.

Just as the job market is bleak for college seniors, soon-to-be graduates of vocational and technical high schools - many of whom hope to skip college and enter the job market immediately - are having a tough time finding a place to ply their trades.

"It's going to be really hard for anyone like us to find a job, because so many more experienced people are out of work," said Dan Shadley, a junior at Minuteman Career & Technical High School in Lexington. Shadley wanted to pursue a career in the automotive field after graduating, but he now plans to attend a four-year college instead, based on the weak job market. "We're just a bunch of kids fresh out of school. We're going to be at the bottom of the list."

Minuteman senior Evan Leone already has a job lined up at a company owned by one of his father's friends, but knows he is in the minority. Just two of the five Minuteman seniors hoping to be electricians have jobs waiting for them. "It's a burden lifted off my back, not having to find an electrician job right now," he said.

Youth employment levels are at historic lows, and, according to officials at vocational high schools, job openings for their graduates - especially in trades closely tied to the housing industry, like carpentry - have evaporated.

"It's the construction-related trades that are really taking a whack, I think," said Minuteman's superintendent-director, Ed Bouquillon. "We're seeing a downturn in drafting, a downturn in welding, telecommunications, a little bit in retail and marketing, collision repair, too."

Comprehensive numbers for Minuteman weren't available, but Bouquillon said fewer seniors this year than last are participating in paid internships, which often lead to full-time jobs.

Tri-County Regional Vocational Technical High School in Franklin places about 100 students in co-op positions most years, officials said, but this year only about 60 seniors were able to line up one of the internships.

At Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica, internships for seniors are down from a usual level of around 140 to about 85.

At Joseph P. Keefe Technical School in Framingham, internships are down by at least 15 percent.

"We don't have any electricians at this time that are working," said Keefe Tech's superintendent-director, James Lynch. "We only have one plumbing student who is working in co-op, and we don't have any carpenters working, where normally we would have four or five students in each category in a co-op."

"It's certainly not the heyday of the last couple of years," said Shawsheen's superintendent-director, Charles Lyons. "Your automotive industry has been significantly affected. Car dealerships are going out of business. The people who have hired our students in the past, they're struggling to get by."

"Right now there aren't the jobs out there that there were when they started school," Tri-County's director of guidance, Jean Mallon, said of this spring's crop of seniors. "Four years ago the economy was in much better shape. So there is that sense of disappointment among the kids.

"They're ready, willing, and able to work," Mallon added. "They came to Tri-County to get their trade, and they want to work. They want to start becoming more and more independent. But we've never been through something like this."

The picture for vocational and technical grads isn't entirely bleak, though. Some graduates are landing jobs in their chosen fields. Others are opting to go to a two- or four-year college, temporarily take lower-paying jobs outside their fields, or join the military.

"They have choices," said Bouquillon.

"In my conversations with students, they felt the timing was right for them to further their credentials before they attempted to compete in the workforce," said Michael Fitzpatrick, superintendent-director of Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Upton. Fitzpatrick said about 70 percent of this year's seniors are opting to continue their education, compared with the usual level of about 50 percent. "They're entering different doors than they've traditionally done. When one door is blocked, that doesn't stymie these kids."

At Tri-County, Mallon said, about 60 percent of seniors will go on to some form of college, up from the past average of roughly 50 percent.

"We see it as a positive thing," Mallon said.

Of course, college students aren't immune from concerns about the economy, either. Students looking to finance their education with part-time work will face the same weak job market, and the additional students will intensify competition for financial aid.

"I really wish I had graduated earlier because it's the most competitive it's ever been," said JonFranco Barretto, a Minuteman senior who is still deciding where to attend college.

Vocational school officials note that the flagging economy is affecting everyone, not just their students, and they say their students' specialized skills give them an advantage over other high-school graduates. Once the economy rebounds, school officials say, the graduates will be poised to snag good jobs.

Another advantage, school officials say, is that vocational and technical schools can adapt with the market, eliminating obsolete programs and adding training for jobs in growth industries. In the next two years, for example, Minuteman plans to add barbering, emergency medical technician, hospitality, criminal justice, preveterinary science, and theater arts programs.

Indeed, several schools are reporting record-high numbers of applications from students looking for more training than their hometown high schools can provide. Tri-County applications are up about 30 percent, and Shawsheen has received around 700 in each of the last two years, up from around 450 in past years.

There is a demand for continuing education classes, too. Applications for adult programs have more than doubled in the past year at Minuteman, and a new licensed practical nursing program at Blackstone received 95 applications, more than four times what officials had hoped to draw.

"I've been thinking about my graduation speech this year," said Bouquillon, the Minuteman superintendent, "recognizing that it's a tough market right now, but reminding them that they have competencies, skills, that other kids their age just don't have."