Officials say vocational school would help fill need for skilled workers

Stylist Angie Jones cuts a customer’s hair Wednesday at Solutions in Clovis. After working a minimum wage job for several years, Jones now co-owns a Norris Street hair salon. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

The blue-eyed foreman climbed his way to the top. He graduated from high school and “went straight into construction.”

Twelve years later, he sits in air-conditioned office and peers over a blueprint. He pulls in $20 to 30 per hour; that’s more than a lot of college graduates, more than some professors, more than a host of city officials. But foreman Donald Collins has a complaint: “I can’t find help here locally,” he said.

Finding skilled laborers is a common woe in Clovis.

Plains Masonry owner Grable Encinias said he often turns away business because there are no masons to lay bricks. “I could use two or three good bricklayers,” Encinias said.

Employee figures at W.T. Denton, Mech., Inc. tell the same story. The company employs about 55 skilled workers — heating and ventilation experts, plumbers, and carpenters; more than half are out-of-towners, said manager Donita Denton.

According to Clovis tradespeople and business managers, there is a nationwide drought of skilled workers. Some relief may be on the way.

Clovis Municipal Schools Superintendent Rhonda Seidenwurm wants to super size the pool of skilled workers in Clovis by building a vocational-technical high school.

“This is not a high school issue,” Seidenwurm said at a recent school board meeting. “This is a community issue. The majority of our high school graduates will be here in 20 years, whether we equipped them to be McDonald’s workers or nurses, electricians, plumbers and carpenters.”

School officials and business people are backing her plans.

“There is some good research behind what (Seidenwurm) has asked us to look at,” said Clovis schools Federal Programs and Public Relations Director David Briseno.

The high school does offer some vo-tech programs, internally and through the Clovis Community College, but according to Seidenwurm and Briseno, student interest would quadruple if a vo-tech high school existed.

“It’s important to remember,” Briseno said, “this is also about changing the mindset of teachers. For instance, a vo-tech English teacher might teach students how to read a technical manual. Students would learn how to interpret the manual, which is harder than interpreting a lot of the literature you would find in a traditional English class,” he said.

The vo-tech plan is still in its infancy and a possible curriculum and location for the project has yet to be determined, Briseno said.

Nailed down, however, is the mission of a vo-tech program, should it materialize.

“We want to prepare our students for higher paying jobs,” Briseno said.

It is a mission lacking in the high school education of many area skilled workers.

Clovis cosmetologist Angie Jones said she was a single mother in her late-twenties before she stumbled across her career path. She spent years behind a counter making minimum wage. She is now the co-owner of Solutions salon, and “makes good money.”

“There is a lot you can do in this profession,” Jones said, her own hair streaked stylishly blonde. “It opens a lot of doors.”

Laurel Ridge Healthcare director of nursing Mary Terrell also underscored the benefits of a strong trade-based education

It’s no secret there is a shortage of nurses, Terrell said.

“The average age of a nurse is 50 some odd years and a lot of us will be retiring soon,” Terrell said from her office. “We have difficulty hiring and retaining nurses and certified nurse assistants.”

Terrell and other skilled workers, however, caution that their jobs are difficult — being a nurse is a “high-stress job,” Terrell said.

Encinias said he prefers to train his own workers, so he can ensure their work ethic aligns with his own: an old-style approach — “A lot of those workers from the college,” Encinias said, “just don’t produce enough.”

As school officials weigh the need for a vo-tech high school, all signs indicate the market will wait, and students will continue to wonder where they fit in the real world.