Unlike most college students majoring in art, Josh Meyer isn’t worried at all about what he’ll do after graduation.
He says the main concern isn’t if he’ll land a job, but how much the paychecks will be. As a student at Santa Monica College’s high-technology academy, Meyer expects that he and other classmates will be able to secure entry level jobs that could pay up to $80,000 a year.
“My parents freaked when I told them I wanted to be an artist,” said the 22-year-old Meyer. “Even I was a little worried. But times have changed.”
Times have indeed changed for students who once learned their trade using charcoals and pastels. And companies throughout Los Angeles are desperately hunting for workers who can design fashions on a computer, set up a World Wide Web site or conduct genetic research using the latest in biotech hardware.
“There is an incredible demand out there. Every student who has these skills will easily be able to choose between three or four well paying jobs,” said Michael Splazinski, a technology analyst whose firm Direct Link specializes in providing software and hardware devices for Hollywood studios.
Splazinski said the industry currently employs about 6,000 digital artists in California 10 times as many as in 1991.
But digital effects executives complain that they are increasingly forced to recruit overseas, mostly because American schools have not provided computer arts training. As a result, they say, artists capable of producing sophisticated visual compositions on computers are scarce.
Those in the industry say that the education system fails to provide training throughout school from kindergarten through college. David Wertheimer, president of Paramount Digital Entertainment, said these skills must be provided at an early age.
“We need to get at kids younger and younger, teaching them about technology so that by the time they are in college, the building blocks will already be there,” he said.
“We’re still far from doing that now. It’s got to be more than an occasional seminar available to only a few students; this needs to be part of the educational system at large and that’s not happening.”
Santa Monica College is one of the few local examples of the education system preparing for the 21st century.
State Controller Kathleen Connell identified the school along with four other California community colleges as part of a pilot program that attempts to pair students with high-tech companies.
“In the 19th Century, the frontier of America was moving from agriculture to manufacturing,” she said. “Today the frontier is going from manufacturing to services and technology.”
Connell wants the Legislature to give the selected colleges funding for programs in computer-aided fashion design, new media, international trade and biosciences.
For their part, the industries would help develop curricula at the schools, provide internships and supply the technical expertise and equipment necessary to train students.
The industry role reflects another trend: Unhappy with the job being done by educators, cutting-edge industries have paired up with the schools to help provide the training they need.
Warner Bros. Feature Animation, for example, has created an interactive video teleconferencing network to teach high school and college students to become animation artists. The pilot program links the Glendale-based entertainment giant with students nationwide including Cal State Northridge, John Rowland High School in Rowland Heights and the La Puente Valley Regional Occupation Program.
Although efforts are scattered, a number of schools also are offering high-tech training though often on a small scale. For example:
– Santa Monica College offers a “summer bridge” program that gives 40 high school students the chance to learn about computer animation, CD-ROM development and theme park design. Nine local high schools nominate 90 students to participate in the program, which is funded by a $159,000 grant from the California Community Colleges chancellor’s office.
– Rio Hondo College, among other community colleges, offers basic classes in programming languages and doing business on the Internet. The series of six classes teaches students about Web site design and how to use the Internet as a business tool.
– Eight seniors from Pasadena High School’s Visual Arts and Design academy and John Muir High’s GeoSpace Academy spent spring break learning how 3D animators create special effects at the Digital Media Institute in Hollywood. Students in these academies are already learning about computer design, laser technology, graphics and film making.
– The Los Angeles Unified School District has three schools Hollywood High, Pacific Palisades Charter School and Abraham Freedman Occupational Center that offer training to students in many of the emerging fields.
The City of Los Angeles is also working with the district to open New Media academies throughout the region to teach such skills as computer animation and Web site design.
“There has been an explosion in this industry that is unprecedented in human history,” said Gary Mendoza, L.A.’s deputy mayor for economic development. “We’re partnering in the school district to make sure L.A. builds a talent pool to capitalize on these opportunities.”
Some of the New Media academies will be located in South Central Los Angeles, he said, in recognition of the fact that many inner city residents lack the basic academic skills that are a prerequisite to advanced training.
The following is a look at the training needs in four industries that experts say are key to L.A.’s future.
Computer-Assisted Fashion Design
The garment industry is rapidly automating the traditional process of designing and manufacturing new clothing lines. Now, instead of seeking employees who can work a pair of scissors, many clothing companies are seeking those with computers skills.
Specifically, employees are needed to operate Computer Assisted Design and Computer Assisted Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) software. Those who master the technology can net about $62,000 a year, according to Marcia Gerber, who owns Surf & Sand Beachwear in Manhattan Beach.
“We get applications from lots of designers that come forward with interesting ideas,” she said. “But we’re looking for the computer skills. We reject 90 percent of our applicants.”
Los Angeles Trade Technical College, which is part of the county’s community college district, recently debuted the state’s first state-of-the-art facility that provides technology training for apparel and textile workers. The new facility has 23 computer work stations that can accommodate about 250 students.
The program was funded in part by a $250,000 grant from IBM, as well pledges from local retailers and software companies. Those graduating from the program are almost assured good jobs, said Ilse Metchek, L.A. Trade Tech’s executive director.
“There is such a great demand for these jobs all around the state and especially in Los Angeles,” she said. “But like a lot of other industries that rely on new technology, we end up with lots of good paying jobs and nobody to fill them. There’s a big focus now on education, and we’re part of it.”
Many businesses are racing to hook up to the World Wide Web, and it’s triggering a boom for high-tech communications companies throughout California, said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Economic Development Corp.
In fact, county high-tech start-up companies are maturing so quickly sometimes growing from 2 employees to 100 within a matter of months that they need to build entire business infrastructures virtually overnight, he said.
This creates an opportunity for people that have skills in Internet programming languages, such as like Hyper-Text Markup Language and Java. These are used to build web sites covering everything from advertising cars to promoting movies.
Paramount Digital Entertainment, a division of Paramount Pictures, helps the studio build web sites that are linked to upcoming releases. The company needs everything from technicians who program the software to computer artists who design them.
“It’s not the MTV generation anymore it’s the Internet generation,” said Wertheimer, president of Paramount Digital. “Today’s young people are growing up on cyberspace, knowing the value of interactivity. As they get older, they won’t be happy being spoon-fed entertainment they want to be part of it.”
But the one thing the “Internet Generation” lacks is skills, he said. Paramount along with Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros. are among the companies that are partnering with Santa Monica College.
He hopes that entertainment and Internet companies will have the ability to hire directly out of graduating students from Santa Monica College, he said.
“We’re searching up and down the state all over the nation for employees,” he said. “Our mission is to hire people from the L.A. economy that’s what we are striving for.”
He said the industry will pay $52,000 for many starting out in a technical position and can progress to well beyond $100,000 a year.
By the year 2000, careers in animation for movies, television, computers and video games are expected to provide thousands of jobs to L.A., according to Jill Smolin, training and education manager for Digital Domain.
Many in the industry are seeking computer animators to create cel drawings, stop-motion puppet techniques, clay animation, 3D digital imaging and other techniques. These skills can be seen in movies like “The Lion King,” “Toy Story,” “Twister,” and “Independence Day.”
“We’re looking for creative multimedia artists,” said Smolin. “There is a great need in the industry for people that can blend animation and special effects through computers.”
Jobs in this industry can range between $35,000 and more than $100,000, she said.
A positive development for California this year has been biotechnology, which is expected to become a $5 billion industry by 2005.
In fact, biomedicine already plays a significant role in the Los Angeles economy, with an estimated 500-700 local companies and 24,000-plus employees actively producing biomed products, and an equal number of firms promoting, distributing or offering related services with them, according to the Southern California Biomedical Council.
A bachelor’s degree is only sufficient for biotech industry positions such as technician or diagnostic-machine operator. Advanced degrees can snag jobs in biochemistry, microbiology, bioengineering and genetics.
“To survive in the new world, you have to be computer literate whether you are an artist, enginer, or fashion designer,” said Ed Pope, president and CEO of Matech Inc. of Thousand Oaks. “It’s the same for biotech. We need people to fill these positions, and it’s emerging as an industry that will lead our economy.”
USC Professor Gilbert Blound warns that many companies are partnering with schools more out of publicity than the need to educate.
“A number of schools offer these summer seminars, which can be extremely worthwhile at times,” said Blound, who specializes in interactive multimedia. “But in many cases they are worthless ploys designed to garner the favor of some company that might be involved. In fact, the quality of instruction is really not there.”
He said students at all levels must be given access to the tools needed in these emerging industries. This is something that Blound already sees happening, but needs to happen at a much faster pace if Los Angeles is to keep up with the rest of the nation and world.
“The students are coming armed with computer skills, but we are still not anywhere near where we need to be,” he said. “Grammar schools, junior high schools, high schools, community colleges and universities all need to connect with industries with a lot more frequency than what we’re seeing.”