Andrew Zera was a student at Hahnville High School when he found welding more appealing than traditional classes.

Now he is a welder making six figures a year, travels all over the nation and just put down $40,000 for a home.

“The opportunities in welding are endless and they are plentiful right now,” the 2011 graduate said.

Zera made his comments during a daylong gathering at the Baton Rouge River Center on Louisiana’s bid to remake its long-struggling career education program through an overhaul called Jump Start.

The program is designed to give high school juniors and seniors a way to earn national industry credentials, and help end what state Superintendent of Education John White called the stigma that surrounds career education.

“We need a plan for economic opportunity for all Louisiana students,” White said.

State officials said up to 700 local educators, industry officials and others from around the state were expected to attend the first such gathering.

The agenda included workshops on career counseling, implementing career readiness classes and a panel discussion on how the changes look in southwest Louisiana.

Jump Start is supposed to align school districts, two-year colleges and private firms into regional teams to prepare high school juniors and seniors for high-paying jobs. It means that students who pursue the career path in high school will split their day between workplace training, such as learning how to be a welder, and traditional courses.

Doing so will help them qualify for a credential, then a job or more college training.

Students can take Jump Start whether they plan to pursue a career after high school or attend a community or technical college or a four-year university.

Those who want to earn a career diploma have to follow a Jump Start curriculum, which includes nine of 23 units required for a diploma.

The state has around 75,000 high school juniors and seniors.

White has said that, in time, up to 25,000 students will take part in Jump Start.

Louisiana’s career education efforts have been criticized for years, and 1 percent of students earned such degrees in the past.

Spenser Johnson, a high school student in Livingston Parish, told the gathering that she has worries about her career plans.

Johnson said she plans to pursue a career in sheet metal, which has eased family concerns about college costs. “When I graduate, I don’t have to rush or stress about my life path,” she said.

Targeted industries include construction, engineering, energy, transportation and health care.

Under current rules, 33 fields are available to students.

White said another 20 are about to be added.

Eleven regional teams of school districts, colleges and businesses are already in operation, including those in the Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lafayette areas.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.

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