Buffalo schools train students for the jobs of tomorrow

Buffalo schools train students for the jobs of tomorrow

Buffalo schools train students for the jobs of tomorrow
January 25, 2016

Deep in the bowels of Buffalo’s McKinley High School on a recent school day, students in John Serra’s electrical class set up breaker boxes in mock rooms composed of wood studs, poke around on the Internet or tinker with a set of solar panels they have installed on a fake roof.

Four high school seniors in the class listen intently to Serra, who explains how to use equipment to read how much energy the solar panels are creating, while plugging wires into the metal frame of the sleek, black squares attached to the faux roof earlier in the school year.

Afterward, one of the students, Josiah Dudek, said he chose to enter the program, in part, because he wasn’t sure how he would pay for college. Working as an electrician, possibly in the emerging solar industry, could help him afford to pay tuition, should he want to continue his education beyond high school.

“Even if after high school you don’t go to college and you end up going into the union or you end up going into an apprenticeship, you get paid as you do it,” Dudek said.

He and his classmates are ambivalent about college, but all said they like the flexibility that a basic knowledge of electrical work affords them.

One of the students, Luis Romero, said many kids go to college because they think it is what they are supposed to do, even if it doesn’t truly interest them.

"People maybe that aren’t really interested in college or don’t really like doing some of the things you do in college, they can do something with their hands,” Romero said. “Something that, you know, excites them more.”

As these students approach graduation day and move on to college or directly into the workforce, opportunities for trade workers and those qualified for manufacturing jobs in the Buffalo region are so plentiful that employers are having a hard time filling the positions. In a city with notoriously high and persistent rates of poverty, this presents an opportunity to begin to address those issues. But the gulf between the people who most need the jobs and the training and skills they need to get that work is something local officials have struggled to bridge for years.

For its part, the Buffalo school district has been working with the state Education Department to adjust the career and technical education training to meet the changing demands of the region’s employers. The state has issued grants of $3 million to $4 million to help the district implement programs designed to feed students into collegiate training and degree curriculums in those fields or directly into the workforce.

Along with the growing demand for health care workers on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus has comethe three medical career programs at the Buffalo Public Schools’ Math, Science and Technology Preparatory School. With the rebound of the city’s manufacturing sector, there are a number of advanced manufacturing programs run in conjunction SUNY Alfred at Burgard High School. Serra’s electric class at McKinley is just one of a number of courses offered to students seeking training in green construction techniques, a response to levels of trades job openings that haven’t been this high in decades.

And now that SolarCity is set to open the largest solar panel factory in North America in South Buffalo this year officials expect nearly 3,000 jobs to be created, directly and indirectly, by the plant the school district is set to start a program in partnership with Erie Community College and the solar panel maker that would position students to graduate with a certificate that qualifies them for what will besome of the most common positions at the solar company.

Katherine Heinle, the director of the school district’s career and technical education program, said that her department works closely with employers and the state Education Department to get students ready for the jobs that are coming down the pipeline, something that is particularly important with the job growth the region is experiencing.

“We’re going to be actually training kids for whatever SolarCity thinks their openings are going to be,” Heinle said.

While some of the newer programs will not immediately address the skills gap, down the road these programs should work toward filling the jobs with local students, Heinle said.

“There were kids already in our construction program that are hitting the job market and getting jobs and apprenticeships,” Heinle said. “The kids that are in these newer programs won’t hit the job market for six years.”

With 7,000 kids enrolled in career and technical education courses and another 4,000 in “programs of study,” which also allow students to earn a certification, the school district is preparing the next wave of Buffalo workers and giving them a leg up if they want to go straight into the job market instead of attending college, Heinle said.

“I think our biggest challenge in technical education at the high school level is now finding qualified teachers to teach these new and emerging fields,” she said.

David Rust, the executive director of the education nonprofit Say Yes to Education, Buffalo, said that while his organization’s core mission is to increase graduation rates for city students at the high school and collegiate levels, it recognizes the importance of career and technical education and has been providing support for those programs.

We think it’s critical to support those (programs),” Rust said.

In a city where half the children grow up in poverty and the graduation rate just surpassed 60 percent for the first time in a decade, it’s imperative for educators to support students in every possible avenue toward productive, fulfilling work, he said.

“The revitalization of this city needs to be for everyone,” Rust said. “You can’t have a city full of poor people that can’t get jobs. What does the medical campus or SolarCity mean to someone who can’t access it? What does 716 mean to somebody who can’t go have a meal there? We’ve got a chance to get this right for the first time in our city’s history and it’s a special opportunity and one that we have to take full advantage of.”

Back in the classroom, John Serra said that the revitalization of the city, with so many construction and renovation projects highly visible to students, is resonating with high schoolers.

“It’s increased students’ awareness of the need for tradespeople,” said Serra, who has taught career and technical education in the Buffalo Public Schools for 30 years.

Serra added that he has also seen a shift in the public perception of career and technical education programs. When he first started, such classes were seen as only for kids who were academically challenged. Now educators and advocates have come around to the idea that going into a trade can be a better choice for some students over college, regardless of their academic abilities.

“There’s no doubt about, over the past several years, even in the media, they at least address the fact that not everybody’s going to college and these trades jobs can create great careers for students,” Serra said. “Not just jobs, but a career for their whole life. They can have a family, be productive citizens in the community and that’s what we’re really trying to do.”

Standing around the solar panels near the end of Serra’s class, the seniors talk about their city and what they’ve seen happening over the last few years. They agree that, on the whole, Buffalo is better off than it was when they were younger.

All but one student, who hopes to return to his native Texas after graduating, said they plan to stay in Buffalo.

Josiah Dudek said he believes that the course he has set by participating in the electrical program will help him be part of the “New Buffalo” a city on the rise after decades of decline that is so often referred to by city, county and state officials.

“Now Buffalo’s creeping back up and I see that,” Dudek said. “I want to be a part of it.”

Justin Sondel
is a freelance reporter working out of Buffalo, N.Y.