From Shop Class To Shipyard: Oregon's Plan For Industrial Interns

Manufacturers in Oregon want to hire high school students. But they don't want the kinds of high school students that colleges are after — the kind who have amazing test scores and will spend hours perfecting essays. They want teenagers who want to paint, weld and work with their hands. The hope is that those teens will turn into enthusiastic workers in an industry where the current workforce is headed toward retirement.

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President Obama often talks about making sure American students graduate high school ready for college. But one program in Oregon is reaching out to the shop class crowd of students who would rather learn a paying trade right away than stay in a classroom. Manufacturers there are using a new internship program to recruit and train teenagers straight out of high school to be machinists, welders and painters. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Rob Manning reports.

ROB MANNING, BYLINE: Jonathan Suarez gets up before dawn for his job as a painter in the North Portland shipyards. He's 18, and he loves going to work.

JONATHAN SUAREZ: You get to stand on one of the ships and watch the sun rise. And like, the clouds are turning red and everything and it's like, it's amazing. It's great.

MANNING: A year ago, Suarez didn't know shipbuilder Vigor Industrial existed.

SUAREZ: And then once I was here, like, I was like, no, I have to work here. Like, this is the place I want to be at because you get a beautiful view of Portland. You get to see the biggest ships ever. You get to like, do all these crazy things, and nobody even knows about it. Everybody, like, looks at you like you're crazy when you're telling these stories - like, this guy is like, making it up. But no, it's like, for reals.

MANNING: Vigor is one of a few Portland manufacturers setting up young people for jobs in industry. They want high schoolers who prefer working with their hands over sitting at a desk. Here's how it works: Students get recruited in shop class. They take a class to improve certain soft skills, and they compete for internships. Union rules limit what interns can do, but the experience qualifies them for permanent jobs.

Suarez and Clayton Holstein(ph) interned at Vigor over Portland's summer months.

CLAYTON HOLSTEIN: I'm actually enjoying what I'm doing out there. It's hot and it's sweaty and dirty, but it's fun; and I'd much rather be doing that than, you know, working behind - in like, some cubical, or something like that.

SUE HALEY: Not only is there a lack of people that are out there that are skilled enough, but our average age is roughly 50.

MANNING: Sue Haley(ph) directs Human Resources at Vigor.

HALEY: Lots of people retiring, lots of people with loads of skills.

MANNING: Haley was happy to hire both Suarez and Holstein at the end of the summer, as permanent employees. They first got the hands-on skills that made the internship possible in shop class, but schools have cut back shop programs in recent years. Federal spending has fallen, and standardized tests have intensified focus on core academics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY, BACKGROUND CHATTER)

MANNING: Centennial High School still has shop. Teacher Mark Watts(ph) says students line up to get in.

MARK WATTS: I've never heard a kid ever say to me, I love coming to school because I can't wait to come to English. Now, that's not a slam on English or math because it's important, but this is the carrot.

MANNING: Oregon may need more carrots. Two-thirds of Oregon high-schoolers graduate in four years. Educators agree that connections are important, whether it's metal shop, choir, or a teacher they like. It was metal shop for Leon Artimenko(ph). He's a junior.

LEON ARTIMENKO: My freshman year, I, like - I got, like, bad grades and stuff. But then, when I started going to metals my sophomore year, it like, motivated me to start going to school more, and stuff.

MANNING: Artimenko was in class when Clayton Holstein came back to visit, and told students he was earning $800 a week at the shipyards. Nearly 18 percent of Oregon's young people are unemployed. I asked Holstein how many of his friends who aren't in college are looking for work.

HOLSTEIN: It's like, all of them. (Laughter) They're all either hunting for jobs or they have - you know, minimum-wage jobs where they just want to find something better. They're just trying to find something to get them by. They're unhappy.

MANNING: Oregon is trying to rebuild career education. Legislators approved nearly $9 million for that earlier this year. The industrial intern program hopes to snag some of that money. But to really expand the size of the young worker pipeline, more Northwest manufacturers - big and small - would have to open their doors to eager teenagers.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Manning in Portland.

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