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Benson students cash in on job skills

Apprenticeships help new businesses' connections pay off


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JON HOUSE - Joey Wallberg works a drill press in his metal shop class at Benson High School.When it comes to real-world experience, Benson Polytechnic High School students are getting the chance of a lifetime.

Three students this year are part of the school’s new apprenticeship program with Milwaukie’s Blount International, a global manufacturer of saw chains and other cutting tools.

Concerned about an aging manufacturing workforce, the company interviewed and selected Benson students last year to teach them new skills — with pay — and give them exposure to the types of careers available at their company and the industry.

“When an employer looks for a potential employee, they’re thinking of someone in their 20s or 30s,” says Benson Principal Carol Campbell, in her second year at the school. “We’re trying to sell them a 16-year-old.”

The students — junior Evan Wagstaff, junior Joseph Wallberg and senior Gabe Hale — were selected from two dozen who applied.

They worked full-time at Blount during the summer and are working around their school schedule this year, up to 20 hours a week.

They earn $12 per hour, practicing skills they’ll need to step into an entry-level job in the field, if that’s the route they choose.

“They’re operating some machinery that’s similar if not the same” as at Benson, and in some cases are more skilled than other applicants looking for work in the field, Campbell says.

While Blount is Benson’s latest paid apprenticeship, it’s one of a handful the Portland Workforce Alliance has arranged through the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Benson students are also apprentices at Tice Industries Inc., Gunderson, Precision Castparts Corp. Structurals and Columbia Wire & Iron.

A long list of local businesses have also stepped up to work with Benson students at different levels, everything from job shadows and site visits to classroom presentations and internships.

“We’re always looking for more partners,” Campbell says.

Benson’s enrollment is at 900 this fall, still under an enrollment cap by Portland Public Schools but larger than anticipated because attrition was low.

The workforce alliance also organizes the annual Youth Career Expo each spring.

About 100 companies (including manufacturing, construction, health care, technology and design) were represented at the expo in May; 4,600 students from the tri-county area attended.

Next year’s expo is set for March 19.

Workforce alliance director Kevin Jeans-Gail says the goal of the expo is “trying to help students become aware of the different opportunities and educate them about the skills they need.”

The apprenticeship program is the most in-depth partnership between schools and industry. Shortly after the alliance formed in 2005, “we’d heard about a program in Tillamook that had gotten students hired,” Jeans-Gail says. “We spent the day there talking with businesses and educators, and connected with BOLI. We said, ‘Hey, we want to start something like this in Portland.’ Because of the curriculum at Benson, they said absolutely.”

The workforce alliance became an officially sanctioned program with the state, which allows companies to legally hire students younger than 18 as long as safety requirements are met.

Drew Park, president of North Portland’s Columbia Wire & Iron and a Portland Workforce Alliance leader, says he knows employers are interested in offering apprenticeships, but aren’t sure about the details. He’s working on that, and thinks it’ll start to grow by positive word of mouth.

“The moment they flip the switch and get students in there, their employees get all jazzed up, want to help and mentor them,” Park says. “The students are prepared and profitable for the company.”

In Oregon, manufacturing accounts for 20 percent of the total economy, 10 percent of the workforce and $34 billion in sales. Park and others are acutely aware that as baby boomers retire, there’s going to be a labor shortage here and nationally.

He’s made it his mission to bridge the gap between school and work, hoping to change the mindset that a four-year college degree is the only way.

“If college is not going to be successful for a student, there’s no point in going, because that’s just going to be a failure,” he says, noting that he went to college but then left because it wasn’t a good fit.

“The problem is if you don’t go to college and you don’t have other plans,” Park adds. “You’ve got to say earlier, ‘College may be for me, but if not, what else can I do, and what do I need to be successful?’ "