Pima County Partnership Creates Pipeline from High School to High-Paying Jobs
College wasn’t in the cards for Ruben Rivera when he started high school. Then, he joined Desert View High School’s iSteam Academy, where students learn about drafting, design and machinery.
Now things look different for Rivera, a soon-to-be graduate. Once he turns 18, he’s set for an internship with Paragon Space Development Corporation.
He’s planning to go to the University of Arizona, he said, but he hasn’t decided whether he wants to focus on aerospace engineering or mechanical engineering.
“I’ll have the work experience I want in this industry. It’ll put me ahead of students who are juniors and seniors in college,” Rivera said. “This program made the foundation for the plans I have after.”
All of this was made possible through Southern Arizona Manufacturing Partners, a collaboration between schools and the local manufacturing industry that’s facilitated by Pima County’s Community and Workforce Development Department.
“The students here have a huge advantage over other high school students,” said CWD program coordinator Gabe Lopez.
Kathi Finfrock, a workforce development specialist with CWD who facilitates SAMP, said the partnership was formed when local manufacturers realized that most of their upper-level employees were nearing retirement age.
“We all came to the table because we have a need, and we needed educators, government and industry to come together to meet it,” she said.
SAMP started with classroom presentations and student tours of manufacturing facilities. The partnership then enabled Pima County to set up summer internships for recent high school graduates and covered their tuition at Pima Community College while they continued their internships.
SAMP, Finfrock said, serves as a pipeline for high school students into manufacturing careers they wouldn’t have otherwise known were available.
“It’s exposing these kids who have never had the opportunity to learn about manufacturing,” she said.
Cesar Gutierrez, the instructor who heads iSteam Academy at Desert View, said the program empowers kids like Rivera to go on to bigger and better things.
They don’t ask parents to contribute money towards iSteam Academy projects, he said, they earn it instead by making machine parts and selling them to businesses.
“We have our own business here,” he said. “With every company we talk to, we ask, ‘What can we make for you so we can earn money?’”
The students work in a shop full of machines to make things like golf clubs, baseball bats and prosthetic ankles.
He said students in the program tend to be very driven. The last three valedictorians at Desert View came from his classes.
“I have a great problem,” he said, “because I have to tell them to go home.”
Now Gutierrez is faced with another great problem. The program started in 2012, with the help of SAMP, with about 45 students. About 500 have applied for his classes for the next year, but he only has room for 280.
Finfrock said SAMP started at Desert View and Tucson High. It has since increased its reach into other schools through the Joint Technical Education District.
SAMP is also working with two of CWD’s educational resources, Pima Vocational High School and the Las Artes program.
Through the iSteam Academy at Desert View, students can also earn credits to apply toward their associate degrees.
According to Finfrock, CWD is hoping to apply the SAMP model into its healthcare field training in the future.