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Byline: LISA M. SODDERS Staff Writer

Four years after graduating from high school, most of Jeff Riddle's friends are still trying to map their futures.

But Riddle himself is well on his way to a career as a plumber, working 40 hours a week as an apprentice for his father's plumbing company, while taking twice-a-week classes on the Plumbing Code at the North Valley Occupational Center in Mission Hills.

While a college degree is seen as the gold standard by many, others say vocational training can lead to a career that is just as satisfying and lucrative.

``I like to work outside and just work with my hands,'' said Riddle, 22, of Simi Valley. ``I'm one of those people who could never be stuck in an office.

``I don't want to put in five to seven years in college and have all that student loan debt and not be making more than I'm making now.''

As an apprentice in the plumbing and piping industry's training program, students such as Riddle work 40 hours a week, starting at $18 an hour, and take classes two nights a week.

And while they train, they are eligible for benefits including medical, dental and vision coverage, prescription drugs, disability insurance, a 401(k) and pension plan.

After five years of training, they become journeymen, and can command salaries of more than $40 an hour. An operating engineer -- who operates heavy equipment like bulldozers and large cranes -- can earn as much as $125,000 a year after a five-year apprenticeship.

Last year, 73,920 apprentices statewide were enrolled in state-certified programs, more than two-thirds of them in the construction trades, with plenty of openings for qualified students, officials said.

But industry officials are concerned about recruiting enough apprentices to meet future demand for journeymen, particularly with the boom in public-works projects funded by taxpayer-approved construction bonds.

``Our apprenticeship program is accredited for 32 college units,'' Layton said. ``Here in the United States, unfortunately, we don't look at apprenticeship as some of the other countries do. There, you put your apprenticeship completion certificate on the wall and it's like putting it next to a bachelor's degree from USC.''

In past years, vocational education classes in public high schools provided a ready source of applicants to apprentice programs. But the recent emphasis on college prep classes, and a gradual phase-out of many expensive vocational programs, have reduced the number of applicants, despite an increase in joint union-and-contractor-sponsored programs.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, however, plans to overhaul its career-technical program, recognizing that the old ``vo-tech'' classes kept students engaged in education, taught them a trade and often prevented them from dropping out with no marketable skills.

Over the next three years, the LAUSD hopes to create 30 to 40 career academies connected to the business community and the district's adult education centers that will teach construction trades, health services, engineering and robotics.

Vocational students will still have to pass courses required for admission to California's public university systems. And beginning this year, students in the sixth grade and above will be given an individualized graduation plan that will be updated annually.

``The more we focus young people on what they're going to be doing after they graduate from high school -- `Who am I going to be and how do I get there?' -- the better we're going to be in terms of dropouts,'' said Bob Collins, the district's chief instructional officer of secondary instruction.

Despite the promise that a vocational career holds, however, many parents simply don't want to hear about anything other than a college degree for their children.

``There's a stigma attached,'' said Dale Alpert, a counselor at Granada Hills Charter High School, who works with gifted students. ``When parents are looking at the ideal profession, they envision their children as doctors and lawyers and engineers.

``A large amount of it has to do with what is socially -- not just acceptable -- but prominent and desirable. Saying `My son, the doctor; my son, the engineer,' is more prestigious than saying, `My son, the plumber.' But if the student is self-sufficient and doing honest work, he's a success.''

Construction industry experts concur.

``Construction is dirty, dangerous work and people are sometimes ignorant of the financial rewards,'' said Bill Davis, a spokesman for the Southern California Contractors Association. ``They tend to think they'd rather their kid did something `better.'''

But construction in California employs 984,000 people, the largest single private employer in the state and Davis says there's lots of potential for growth.

``There are a number of construction company owners who started out as an operator on a backhoe somewhere.''

Ryan Booth, 26, of Simi Valley, a plumber's apprentice for a Glendale company, said he likes the work, and shrugs off the noisome qualities of the job.

``There are some things that are a little intense, but a smell is a smell,'' Booth said. ``You just get used to it.''


(818) 713-3663


2 photos


(1 -- color) Apprentice plumber Jeff Riddle solders a bathroom connection in Sherman Oaks.

Andy Holzman/Staff Photographer


Gentry Mullen/The Kansas City Star
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 10, 2006
Next Article:PULSE.

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