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Blue-collar workers, students join forces

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Lena Pira, a 17-year-old senior at Cleveland High School, has a shadow this semester. His name is Oscar Rosenberg, 46, a machinist at the Boeing Co.'s Rocketdyne Propulsion & Power subsidiary in suburban Canoga Park.

Together, they are forging a new blue-collar educational alliance, one in which Rosenberg sometimes becomes a teacher for a couple of hours each week.Both are participants in a new "job shadowing" program being conducted by Rocketdyne and Cleveland High in Reseda. About 20 students come to the plant weekly for a two-hour session with machinists like Rosenberg.

"It's really interesting," said Pira, a Northridge resident, after she had finished writing a program that set one of Rocketdyne's vertical lathes in motion. "I like setting it up and seeing how things turn out. I look forward to it."

Said Rosenberg, a machinist for 25 years: "These kids are pretty focused on what they are doing. There is a need for more of a focus on math in the schools, but most of them are doing pretty good."

This is one of several new partnerships companies in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley are forming with educators to reverse what has become a widespread problem: the shortage of skilled machinists.

For example, Fadal Engineering, which makes a variety of high-end machine tools, has donated equipment to College of the Canyons for its employment training program. It also is recruiting workers from the military.

Executives at a wide variety of large and small manufacturing companies say one of their biggest problems is finding qualified workers to operate the machines on the shop floor.

That shortage is happening for a couple of reasons.

High schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District - in part for lack of funds - don't put much emphasis on this kind of job training because they can't afford to. Couple that with an aging cadre of skilled workers who have either retired or are getting ready to do so, and it adds up to a shortage.

"We've got a mature work force, so we need to bring in the next generation of machinists," said John D. Phelps, Rocketdyne's former machine shop director and now a chief program engineer for the company.

"I've found that a lot of the vocational education infrastructure at the high school level has practically disappeared," he said.

The company decided that since it cannot count on job candidates walking through the door, it would have to train them.

Students get a quick lesson in corporate culture. They are immersed in real-world topics like team structure, safety standards, parts runs, 3-D simulation and numerical control programming, which tells the machines what to do.

Don Runyan, Cleveland High's department chairman for industrial technology education, said more of these programs are needed today to train tomorrow's skilled workers.

"We need to change the way society feels toward vocational education," said Runyan, an educator for 26 years. "It's not getting your hands dirty. It's taking a skill and making a product and making a profit.

"If you gain a salable skill at the high school level, you have the ability to make . . . $20 to $30 an hour easy. If you add college on top of it, you could work into management."

But during the past 25 years, the emphasis on this type of education has waned.

At one time the valley's 17 high schools all had shops that taught graphic arts, metalworking and woodworking. Today only five have them.

"It's fewer than what it should be," Runyan said. "We used to have them in every high school in the city."

He has a ready explanation for what happened: As funding for education tightened, administrators looked for ways to cut costs. Because materials and equipment are expensive, shop classes were an easy target.

For example, Runyan's budget for drafting classes for 150 students is less than $200 annually. For the metal shop, it's about $1,000.

"That doesn't scratch the surface," Runyan said.