In the past three years as president of the Job Opportunities Build Success (JOBS) Coalition, I have been exposed to the harsh realities of employment in the District. My experiences as a teacher, a minister and now head of the JOBS Coalition have taught me that not only must we identify ways to help D.C. residents find and keep jobs, we must help young, underserved, underemployed and returning ex-offenders look at employment in a new way.

I spoke about these realities at a recent hearing held by D.C. Council member David Catania (R-At Large) on proposed amendments to the District's Voluntary Apprenticeship Act of 1978. The JOBS Coalition felt the legislation does not do enough to address the front end of the labor problem -- preparing people for work.

For years, I have watched, assisted and prayed for young people, including ex-offenders, who want to work but lack the skills and work habits to attain and, most important, keep a job. Dysfunctional families, poor schools and an apathetic society produce students who fall through the cracks, increasing the rolls of the chronically unemployed and unemployable.

One of the most feasible solutions to this problem is to put a new face on an old concept -- vocational education. We can bolster this proven approach by teaming up with industries that have a vested interest in finding good workers.

Recently, for example, the JOBS Coalition, along with the chairmen and presidents of Miller & Long, Sigal Construction Corp. and M.C. Dean Inc., sat down with Reginald C. Ballard Jr., principal at Cardozo High School, and his staff to devise ways to put a construction academy on the Cardozo campus. This site would be modeled on the Thomas Edison High School of Technology in Montgomery County.

On several occasions, this group, which included D.C. Board of Education member Julie Mikuta, visited Thomas Edison and saw students learning trades.

Students there recently designed and built a house -- the 33rd such home Thomas Edison students have built in 28 years. The students spoke with pride about their projects and about their plans for the future. Their optimism was infectious. We want District students to have the same experience.

Cardozo now will become our pilot program, supported by a foundation with representatives from construction, development, real estate, accounting and law. However, the equation has another critical part that must be considered, and not just by builders and developers.

Despite everyone's best efforts, a construction academy, or, for that matter, any trade academy, will not succeed unless we can change people's attitudes about vocational education. Students don't gravitate toward blue-collar jobs, even though becoming a plumber, carpenter, electrician or welder offers lifelong employment security. If we are going to give the next generation of students a chance at success, we must help them to understand that while education remains the foundation, a college degree is not the only way to become successful.

As the District settles in with its new school superintendent, let's make sure that our agenda includes a reinvigorated, state-of-the art vocational education program.

-- the Rev. Anthony Motley

amotley@starpower.net