OCC trade programs grapple with pandemic

In Orange County, more COVID-19 restrictions threaten local businesses. The unemployment rate in OC remains at 7.5%, as many of the people in the hospitality and amusement park industry feel the impacts the hardest. This includes the 20,000 students at Orange Coast College who have faced hardships as a result of the pandemic, due not only to unemployment but also the adjustment to online learning. 

In the wake of the economic, health and fire crises Southern Californians are facing, a bill, the National Apprentice Act of 2020 could offer new opportunities for those who have found themselves jobless. 

Trade career paths and services at OCC have been disproportionately impacted, when comparing how the traditional trades such as welding and construction technologies, which could be aided by the National Apprentice Act, have adapted to the unique circumstances of the pandemic to other trade paths offered by OCC such as hospitality, tourism and healthcare. 

The National Apprentice Act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 20 and is now in the Senate for consideration. This bill would offer funding for approved state-wide apprenticeship programs, and seek to diversify trade industries with nontraditional groups such as women and people of color. 

CAST, an education research and development non profit organization working to make schools more inclusive, reported this act will also “improve the accessibility of apprenticeship programs and promote the inclusion of people with disabilities.”

Out of a typical class of 22 students, Oscar Ortiz, professor of construction technology at OCC, said he will have up to three female students, or sometimes none, and one student of color on average. 

“Recruiting these nontraditional groups would not only increase our numbers, it would also benefit the community by providing opportunities to these populations,” Ortiz said. “Any additional funding to our program will also be beneficial. Material for our lab classes and equipment prices continue to rise.”

So, what exactly is an apprenticeship? Apprenticeship.gov defines an apprenticeship as an industry pathway where employers can develop their future workforce, through means such as paid work experience, classroom instruction, and nationally-recognized credential.

According to the National Association of Counties, the National Apprentice Act would create one million new apprenticeships nationally, as well as $10.6 billion in net benefits- which would help some of the 10.7 million people unemployed according to a Dec 4 press release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Locally, this could help create job opportunities as major companies such the Anaheim Ducks and Disney continue to layoff employees.

“Our program has had very good enrollment and we have had very good numbers of students that complete a certificate or degree,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz’s department has faced unique challenges with converting these hands-on activities to an online format.

“Some classes were unfortunately cancelled,” said Ortiz, in the Spring 2020 semester. “This had a negative effect on some students that had hoped on finishing the course of study. Fortunately, some classes were able to be completed online.”

In the Fall 2020 semester, lecture classes such as building codes, estimating, and blueprint reading were held online, but OCC offered limited in-person classes for certain labs, according to Ortiz. 

According to a study released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, construction trades has been one of the educational fields hit hardest in the pandemic, with a 10.9% drop in enrollment compared to last fall. Overall community college enrollment dropped by 2.5% nationally in fall 2020.

“We had to lower the number of students enrolled in these classes in order to accommodate the social distancing requirements while in the lab,” Ortiz said. “Enrollment has started for next semester. Some of our classes are already full. We will continue with lab classes as long as we are allowed.”

This current arrangement of in-person labs and online lectures is planned to be extended into Spring 2021, for construction as well as certain other courses, such as radiology and sonography, that have been designated as “essential services,” according to Lisa Knuppel, dean of Career Education and Career Services.

“It’s hard to be designated as essential. Not all of the classes were,” Knuppel said. “Dental and medical assisting offered what classes they could online. Job prospects aren’t so good as hospitals cut jobs severely.”

In the healthcare department at OCC, some classes like radiology, sonography and respiratory have been allowed to continue attending in person medical labs, but other classes haven’t. 

For the classes that have been allowed to continue, their enrollment is also drastically reduced, according to Knuppel, in order to abide by social distancing rules. 

“A lot of student's lives have been impacted outside of school,” Knuppel said, pointing out that this has also contributed to lower enrollment. 

Students in the hospitality and tourism career courses have perhaps been affected the most, though some classes have found ways to get by. 

“Hotels are still pretty shut down,” Knuppel said. “Hospitality has a strong internship component, and there’s been a huge reduction in embedded internships. Other things have continued, such as bakeries. Bakery folks have done pretty well. There’s also been a great need now for personal chefs.”

In the culinary department, boxes of ingredients and kitchen tools have been distributed to students on a weekly basis to enable students to continue working from home. 

Knuppel also said OCC’s hospitality department enrolls a large number of international students, who have been particularly affected by the pandemic as many are forced to return to their home countries. 

Though many careers are struggling in the midst of the pandemic, others still find themselves thriving. 

“Opportunities are exploding and will continue to grow in technological careers such as web and software design, IT, networking – things you can move into quickly,” Knuppel said. “Automation has also really accelerated, to get machines to do jobs. There’s fine opportunities for people to get training in a variety of ways.” 

OCC is currently in the process of rebuilding these programs, as well as others, to further develop student’s skills and opportunities in these areas. 

“We’ll see more than a light at the end of the tunnel,” Knuppel said. “We are well positioned at OCC. As soon as students are back on campus, if they can hang on and get training now, there will be lots of opportunity. Six months seems like a long time, but it’s really not."

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