Businesses Urge Schools to Impart Basic Work Skills

Businesses in Chicago are lobbying the city's public schools to do a better job of training students in skills they will need for entry-level jobs. Manufacturers around the region say they must do their own training to bring workers up to speed. The school district is considering new vocational training. From Chicago Public Radio, Jay Field reports.

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Some manufacturers in Chicago are demanding improvements in public education. Nearly half of Chicago's public high school students won't graduate and fewer than half can pass the state tests in reading and math. That's making it tough for employers to find workers, even for entry level jobs. It's the same in many parts of the country.

Chicago public radio's Jay Field has this report on how some companies are offering to help the schools do a better job.

JAY FIELD: At 9:00 in the morning, a small group of employees gather inside a classroom at the S&C Electric Company. Many work on the factory floor, building the substations and switchers the Chicago company sells to utilities across the globe. Two days a week, though, they come here first.

Ms. MICHELINE DANKA(ph): We're going to go through the division problems again as we did with the multiplication problems. Except for this time, we're not going to use our calculators.

FIELD: Trainer Micheline Danka writes out a problem with lots of decimal points. Students follow her calculations up and down the white board. This is basic shop math. It's stuff these workers should have picked up in the tenth and eleventh grade.

Ms. NADIA NORIEGA: Actually, I'm learning now things that I didn't learn at high school.

FIELD: Twenty-seven-year-old Nadia Noriega works in the company's wiring and assembly operation.

Ms. NORIEGA: I didn't care back then. I knew I had to go to school, but now it's like I pay more attention because I really want to, you know, to take all of the classes that S&C offers for me. If I would have done that in high school, I wouldn't have to go through all of this now.

FIELD: It's a dilemma that cuts to the heart of the complex difficulties facing the nation's high schools. In Chicago, just over 52 percent of students graduate, according to a recent study by the magazine Education Week. But students who do manage to finish school simply aren't developing the same math literacy and problem solving skills as kids in other industrialized countries. Employers don't like it and U.S. colleges don't, either. They complain they're having to do more and more remediation to bring kids up to speed.

Here at S&C, Noriega says her lack of math skills came back to haunt her when she wanted to move to a position wiring and assembling larger parts.

Ms. NORIEGA: The job that I do, I have to learn the blueprints. So in order to do that, I have to know about math, about the measurements.

Mr. GENE KOTENE(ph) (S&C Electric): Sadly, I have seen a slow degradation of the skills of the typical high school graduate, especially in mathematics.

FIELD: Gene Kotene, who oversees training at S&C, is standing in the middle of the company's cavernous production plant.

Mr. KOTENE: This particular building that you're looking at here is a metal cutting center where we have a number of -

FIELD: The past and future collide on the factory floor. World War II-era machines drone alongside state of the art computer operated models. S&C's machinists need to be able to do geometry and advanced statistical analysis. Without these skills, they can't do the quality control on products the company now demands from virtually every employee.

Mr. KOTENE: We find that we have to do the remediation ourselves on site.

FIELD: All over Chicago, businesses are complaining about the same thing.

Ms. PEGGY LEWIS (Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce): We're expecting a lot more of our students today than we did 10, 20 years ago.

FIELD: Peggy Lewis is the vice president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

Ms. LEWIS: The students, whether they're going onto work or whether they're going onto college immediately, need to be so much higher performing, they really have to be problem solvers.

FIELD: Lewis says the Chamber's 2600 members and businesses across the nation have become much more demanding when hiring entry level employees, so they're pushing the public schools to do a better job. Companies have been willing to help out. S&C Electric has won awards for its partnerships with local high schools, like Prosser Career Academy.

Mr. JOHN BATISTA (Prosser Career Academy): We're going to try to see if we can read these parts of the blueprint.

FIELD: Just off the school's machine shop floor, teacher John Batista's twelfth graders stare down at complex drawings.

Mr. BATISTA: Everything you make is off of a blueprint. It tells you what's in it and everything. So we're going to start here with 11 and watch the -

FIELD: In recent years, many school districts have been scaling back these programs. Prosser is one of the few thriving vocational schools in Chicago today. Here, machine shop is taught separately from core classes like math, English and science. Batista has always wanted to integrate them.

Mr. BATISTA: Every trade that we teach in this school, at Prosser, has an academic integration portion of it that is just handled by the shop teacher. You know, it would be wonderful to have something, you know, where you could work with an English teacher, with a math teacher.

FIELD: A new proposed high school wants to do just that. At the Austin Polytechnic Academy, students would take demanding college preparatory courses woven into a high tech machining and pre-engineering curriculum.

Former machinist Dan Sweeney is leading a team of industry leaders that's lobbying the city to approve the school.

Mr. DAN SWEENEY: But not only would they have the skills, they would also in our school have the contact with those companies over a three or four year period, which gives them a real edge, a real advantage in securing employment.

FIELD: Twenty-two Chicago area manufacturers have signed up to work with the school. Its leaders say these partnerships and the school's cutting edge curriculum would provide the mix of hands on experience and advanced job skills that so many businesses say young workers are lacking.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Field in Chicago.

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