KINGSBURG — Donato Mireles still remembers the pang of jealousy when his dad passed down his tool belt to younger brother Daniel, who had always had an affinity for working with wood and learning how plumbing worked.
Dad was a "do-it-yourself handyman": While their friends' fathers took them on weekend fishing or camping trips, the Mireles brothers would join their dad repairing drywall or installing sprinklers.
Daniel Mireles turned that youthful fire for working with his hands into a career that has become increasingly rare. The 26-year-old is now a construction and auto teacher at Kingsburg High School — and one of just 4,937 full-time career technical teachers in California, down from more than 6,400 in 1997, according to state data.
The shrinking CTE teaching force mirrors a downward trend in career education statewide, including double-digit percentage decreases in CTE enrollment and courses in the past two years.
For Mireles, career technical education — which according to the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board can lead to profitable trade jobs — has become undervalued by many who see college as the only option. That is part of the reason why he staked out his future in education, so he can pass on his passion to his students.
"For parents who don't see these classes as beneficial, they should rethink it because their students might be the ones who learn better with their hands," he said. "I get a chance to say, 'Hey, there's something out there for you, you can make a career out of this.' "
State data shows just 12% of Kingsburg High students are enrolled in career classes. Across Fresno County, 42% of high school students took at least one CTE class in the 2012-13 school year, compared to 76% in 1997.
Mireles is in some ways the poster child for why many say the Valley needs more programs.
As a Sanger High student, Mireles took drafting, auto shop and manufacturing classes.
Bob Bernal, Sanger High industrial technology and drafting teacher, said Mireles was always more like an assistant than a student.
"He'd come to class and I had confidence in him to help other students," Bernal said. "Every challenge he faced, he always had a unique way of figuring it out."
Bernal said traditional drafters were becoming a dying breed — at the time Mireles was in school, drafting classes were quickly being replaced by ones intended to prepare students for college. He set out to recruit Mireles into the field.
Mireles saw the opportunity, but never intended to go to college — instead, he planned to attend a technical institute and then apply for drafting jobs.
"I saw a lot of kids who were lost and didn't care and didn't know what to do after (high school)," Mireles said. "I had a plan."
Donato Mireles, 29, and now a math teacher at Sanger High, said he remembers his brother and high school buddies strategizing to start their own business after graduation. So-and-so would be the business operator, one friend would be drafter, another would be in charge of construction.
"They were thinking about this way before career technical education even took off," he said.
Plans changed for Daniel Mireles when he watched his brother earn a full-ride to Fresno State: Daniel Mireles followed him there on his own scholarship three years later.
He took advantage of the scholarship from the California Teaching Fellows to pursue studies in industrial technology and teaching. He was one of very few driven toward teaching career classes.
"Career tech is a scarce area," said Steve Price, director of community-based learning at Fresno State's Kremen School of Education. "Daniel is the only person in several years who has had that in mind coming in as a freshman. He is rare."
There is no doubt that choosing a more ubiquitous subject like math or English would have been easier: Mireles said "no one ever pays attention to CTE" and that his students always are surprised to hear they could make $15 to $22 per hour in trade professions like plumbing. County data shows certain trades like carpentry and construction equipment operation can pay upward of $18 an hour.
Mireles wants to get the word out. He is considering pursuing a master's degree in education administration so he can help reshape the way prospective teachers think about career tech.
While he still is in the classroom, he said, he hopes to encourage his students to get serious about school — and about jobs in the trades.
On a recent field trip to the plumbers and pipefitters union in Fresno, Mireles' students learned about trade jobs — and how much they could make in the field.
"The kids are like, 'This is real?' I said, 'This is real. You could have a career right outside of high school.' "
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, email@example.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.