Hvacr instructor Dennis DiGiovanni (far right) with students Alma Ruelas (left) and Theresa Soto. Says DiGiovanni, "These kids come away from the hvacr component no longer thinking of air conditioning as just a means of supplying human comfort and of refrigeration as just a way to preserve food."
LONG BEACH, CA — “If a kid graduates from high school with no saleable skills, what’s he going to do?” asks math teacher Marilyn Mayer. “Sure, he can work at McDonald’s for five bucks an hour, but not much else.”

At least in Long Beach, CA, students who may not want to attend a four-year college need not flip burgers after graduation. Instead they can learn a trade while still in high school.

This year marked the first semester of the Middle College/High School Trades and Vocational Tech Program, a joint venture between Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) and Long Beach City College (LBCC). Sixty-five juniors — half of whom are females — were recruited from local high schools last fall and began attending classes at LBCC in January. During the spring semester, the students were exposed to 12 trades, including hvacr, sheet metal, construction, welding, machine tool/CNC, and aviation maintenance.

12 Trades, 12 Weeks

“The 15 hours devoted to each trade is, hopefully, enough time for the students to gain some enthusiasm for what the trade involves,” says Dennis DiGiovanni, instructor and department chair of hvac/mechanical systems at LBCC. “When they come back this summer, they have to make a decision. If they stay with the program, by the time they graduate from high school, they’ll have completed two semesters of a four-semester certificate program. If they return for one more year after graduation, they can earn a certificate in hvac and an AA degree.”

Mayer, who is one of four teachers responsible for the academic portion of the program, says, “Many kids graduate from high school and then flounder around at a community college, wasting time, because they don’t understand what’s available. This program seeks to attract bright, motivated students and give them the opportunity to excel in an alternative environment.”

Of California’s 107 community colleges, LBCC is only one of a handful in Southern California to offer hvacr classes and the only one in the state to offer courses in transport refrigeration.

“I can teach someone to run ductwork in an afternoon, if he thinks he wants to do that eight hours a day. That’s one end of the spectrum,” says DiGiovanni, who has taught at LBCC for 25 years. “But if someone wants to do the layout and design of a system, the start and test of a system, he has to have much more training, and we offer that too.”

New Skills, Eye-Opening Information

All that the high school students have time for in this first survey semester is some hands-on brazing, soldering, tubing, flaring, and wiring, with the basics of electrical safety, parallel circuitry, and hvacr operations thrown in.

“Most of these kids have never done anything like this,” says DiGiovanni. “Today’s kids have great computer skills, good math skills, but virtually no mechanical skills. I just don’t see a lot of ‘backyard mechanics.’”

He sees this as part of a larger trend: Most people have almost no idea of how common mechanical and electrical devices work or how simple objects are made. To illustrate his point, he removes his eyeglasses.

“Most people couldn’t tell you how these are made,” he says. “But if you went to a machine shop or you designed a program to see a 3-D display, then you might have a better idea.

“These kids come away from the hvacr component no longer thinking of air conditioning as just a means of supplying human comfort and of refrigeration as just a way to preserve food. So much of air conditioning and refrigeration has to do with keeping machines cool. Most kids have never considered that prior to this program.

“Just think about all the things that are made from plastic. You have to run chilled water to solidify and eject the mold. Without refrigeration, that industry is dead. The kids come away from all the areas in which a/c and refrigeration are used with a much better understanding. They really are fascinated by what they never knew about before.”

Working With the Union

DiGiovanni says that, right now, the union is not offering any preferential treatment for any hvacr programs at community colleges, “but we’re negotiating for at least partial acceptance of our curriculum for the union’s apprenticeship program.”

And yet the union “prefers our graduates over those who have had no prior training,” says air conditioning and refrigeration instructor Patrick Heeb. “Our students know the theory already. That’s a big advantage.”

“Our best students have their choice of jobs,” adds DiGiovanni. “Contractors call and ask if we have someone good. The instructors know which ones will do a good job, and we only send out our best because we want to maintain the school’s good reputation.”

Plans for Expanding the Program

Both principal Matt Saldana and LBCC’s dean of the School of Trades and Industrial Technol-ogies, Farley Herzek, are optimistic about the program’s future.

“Next year we’re looking at adding 100 juniors, who will take the survey of the trades,” Saldana says, “and adding 40 current juniors, who will go right into a specific trade program, skipping the survey.”

Herzek sees this program as a way to reverse the trend he saw during his 10 years as career and vocational education administrator for LBUSD — “the squeezing out of electives.” With increasing academic requirements, “Voca-tional education classes were usually the first ones to go. High schools may have retained a few automotive and electronics classes, and maybe a graphics arts or architecture class, but students are never exposed to hvac as a career option.

“When you speak with high school students, they know what their family members do for a living, and they know what a doctor, lawyer, police officer, and firefighter does, but when it comes to a trade or technical vocation, they may not have a clue. This program seeks to change that.”

Students Michael Page and Alicia Montana participate in class. Says Page, "Seeing how refrigeration actually works is amazing.

Sidebar: Students Appreciate Vo-tech Program

LONG BEACH, CA — Michael Page, whose father does air balancing for Win Aire of Huntington Beach, is one of the shining stars of the Middle College/High School Trades and Vocational Tech Program. Bright, enthusiastic, and more mature than many people twice his age, Page admits with a grin, “Yeah, my dad was a bit of an influence in getting me to enroll in this program.”

Page has found his introduction to hvac eye-opening, to say the least.

“It’s a complicated field, more complicated than you’d think,” he says. “Seeing how refrigeration actually works is amazing. The amount of technology involved and how far hvac has gone since its beginnings — that’s amazing, too.”

Page enjoys working on computers and fixing his car — “or trying to,” he says. “I work at a hardware store, so I know about plumbing.”

Like the majority of his classmates, Page is as yet undecided as to what trade he’ll pursue in his senior year.

“Right now, I’m just sitting back and observing. I plan to get a certificate and an AA degree, though I may transfer to Cal State [Long Beach] and combine a trade with a business degree.”

Besides his interest in the course work, Page is also pleased with the campus environment.

“I came from a high school of 4,600 students. I was tired of dealing with all the people. Here the space is more open, the food is great, and there are only 17 students in each of my academic classes. I like this a whole lot better.”

Thumbs Up For Program

Miguel Solis says he enjoyed the hvacr component of the program because he liked “playing around with the copper pipes.” He sees the program as “a way to get my feet wet, to see if I’d like doing this work full time.” Oh, yes, and “Trades pay a lot.”

Andre Jones says he likes the idea that by the time he graduates from high school, he’ll already have two years of college experience under his belt.

Peter Pastor smiles with pride when he speaks of his father, who worked as an hvac installer for Long Beach Unified School District for 15 years and was recently promoted to a supervisory position. “He takes care of all the air conditioning for all the schools,” he says.

It was Pastor’s mother, however, who encouraged him to look into the vo-tech program.

“When she saw that they were teaching hvac, she said, ‘Maybe you should consider this. It’s been good work for your father.’”

Although Pastor is currently leaning more toward an electronics certificate, he says that when his father explains how compressors work, “It’s pretty interesting.”

Robert Apodaca has his sights set on becoming an electrician and says he has always enjoyed taking radios and other electronic equipment apart. Apodaca admits that he found air conditioning interesting, as did Asmaa Elzoughby.

April Rodriguez, who says her dad is a “backyard mechanic,” agrees and adds, “It takes a lot of work to make everything run right. You have to know how all the systems work.”

“The instructors are really dedicated,” says Pastor. “It’s fun to be here.”

His classmates nod. On those two points, there’s no disagreement.

Publication date: 08/20/2001