Picture this: You walk into Gateway Community College’s former home on Long Wharf. To your left, high school seniors work alongside college students making jet engine parts. Down the hall, a commercial kitchen is home to a fledgling cupcake business and a student-run café.
That’s one vision Mayor John DeStefano is pursuing as he turns his focus to job training in his 10th two-year term, which he began this week.
As Gateway gets ready to leave 60 Sargent Dr. for a brand new campus downtown, the college is joining forces with the city on a plan to rehab its current home as a combination vo-tech high school, middle college, and business incubator.
Officials from the city, Gateway and the Economic Development Corporation laid out the vision for that collaboration in an interview Thursday at City Hall.
The project, still in the early planning stages, is tentatively dubbed the Gateway Technical Academy/Regional Jobs Center. At the center, high school students would take courses in technical fields while also earning college credits under a middle college program. The space would be shared by local businesses that need extra space, as well as adults who need training for specialized jobs.
The result would be a “synergy” between young trainees, businesses and the college, all sharing the same equipment and lab space, said city spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton.
Organizers haven’t pinned down the cost of the project or where the money would come from, except that it would be a mix of private and federal funds. A first step will come this legislative session, when the city plans to ask the state for planning money to flesh out the curriculum and structure of the academy, said Benton.
Benton said the project sprang from a trip to Shawsheen Regional Technical High School in Billerica, Mass. last May.
New Haven doesn’t have a vo-tech high school; the nearest one is in Hamden. DeStefano launched the vo-tech expedition partly in response to a critique that surfaced during his reelection run—that the city isn’t doing enough to help those kids who aren’t going to qualify for DeStefano’s signature New Haven Promise program, which gives college scholarships to city students who maintain good grades and behavior.
Looking around the city after returning from that trip, DeStefano settled on the Gateway site as the perfect spot to establish New Haven’s own, four-year vo-tech high school. The 1971 concrete building has 150,714 square feet of space, including classrooms and a commercial kitchen. Gateway is moving its culinary arts program downtown along with the rest of the school, leaving the kitchen available for a new crew of aspiring chefs.
As a partner, Gateway would offer a middle college program, through which high school students could take college courses that count towards high school graduation. The middle college program would allow high school students to get an associate degree in five years—saving them time and money.
Gateway brings a lot to the table: It already has a robust technical training program, with an automotive shop and courses in maintaining and repairing medical equipment, fire administration, water management, and clean energy, according to Paul Silberquit (pictured), Gateway’s division director for engineering and applied technologies. The majority of the programs are moving downtown, except the automotive shop, said Silberquit. He said Gateway is applying for funding to expand its manufacturing program at the Long Wharf Gateway campus.
The Gateway collaboration would solve a major problem in town, said Anne Haynes, head of the city Economic Development Corporation: There’s a major “mismatch” between workforce and industry.
“We have jobs,” and people who need work, Haynes said, “but we don’t have a mechanism to train them.”
The result is an unemployment rate of 12.9 percent. Statewide, over 18 percent of people ages 16 to 24 were unemployed as of 2010, according to figures provided by the city.
Haynes’ role would be in the third component of the project—a “business incubator.” The idea is to use the same technical equipment—such as the high-end, computer-run manufacturing machines she checked out at Shawsheen—for high school, college, and business.
For example, the Gateway site has a commercial kitchen. High schoolers could run a café there during the day. When the students aren’t using the space, it could double as an extra space for restaurants looking to get into the food manufacturing business.
The city is already engaged in a quest to create a special business district along the Mill River devoted to food manufacturing, Haynes pointed out. Most city food manufacturers—Hummel Bros, Palmieri Foods, the Chabaso Bakery—spawned from food served in restaurants, she said. Other restaurateurs are now looking to follow suit.
“Some restaurants have food products,” Haynes said, “but they don’t have space” to produce them on a larger scale.
A restaurant looking to spin off a manufacturing business could use Gateway’s space in the evenings to try out mass-producing sausage, for example. Or the space could give a start to an entrepreneur looking to launch a cupcake cart.
Businesses could build relationships with young trainees at the vo-tech school, who could then become employees, Haynes said.
Businesses could also run off-site labs in the building, she said. A similar project exists at the University of New Haven, she said, where Sikorsky runs an off-site engineering lab with labor from college students.
As industry changes, New Haven has quite a few technical jobs that students could be trained for, Haynes said. The jobs are in information technology, engineering, software, medical devices, telecommunications and advanced manufacturing, and as lab techs, she said.
Under the vo-tech vision, students would have a requirement to work in the real world. The school would focus on job-readiness skills and community service. And kids would work for revenue-generating businesses like an auto body shop or a cafeteria, as they do at Shawsheen.
High school students would graduate with “specialized technical training, job-ready skills, and college credit”—ready to start a career, pledges an internal memo put together about the project.
City spokeswoman Benton said the city has not decided what kind of governance the vo-tech school would have, except that it would not be part of the state’s vo-tech system. Questions of how big the school would be, and who would run the various components of the academy, are still up in the air, she said.
Steven Pynn, principal at New Haven’s Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center, said the narrow focus of a vo-tech curriculum might be just what some kids need to engage them in school. Successful high schools, he said, all have this in common: “a meaningful, coherent curriculum that students are invested in.”
At a vo-tech school, students would take all the regular English and math classes between working in the shop or kitchen.
As a consultant to the new school, Pynn is one person who’d be working to make sure the school responds to industry by producing kids with skills that match job openings.
Pynn said the proposed school would serve several needs. First, it would address a “pragmatic reality”—in the next five to 10 years, 40 percent of the workforce is going to come from urban areas, he said. “There’s a huge opportunity for New Haven youth if we design for it.”
Second, Pynn said, a vo-tech school would give students a wider array of choices to study what they’re interested in. Eventually, he said, he hopes the school would help change the mindset around vo-tech schools. They are no longer for kids who aren’t strong in academics, he said. “You definitely need the same skills to get into technical careers” as you do to get into college.
As industries become more specialized, Pynn argued, employees will need constant retraining on the latest developments in the field—at a place like the Gateway academy.
“Everyone is going to be involved in lifelong learning,” he said.