For local advocates of "vocational education" — high school classes with career-related content — that question has been a decades-long source of frustration.
A history of assumptions about the vocational track — entirely separate and distinct from the college track — has been deeply embedded in Palo Alto's college-obsessed culture.
But a new model for vocational education, strongly backed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was a voc-ed student himself when he was in high school in Austria, is upending the timeworn distinctions.
The new voc-ed — now known statewide as Career Technical Education — has been elevated to the college track and caters to everyone from future PhDs to students with learning disabilities.
Gunn High School's new $4 million Career Tech Building, which opened in November, is emblematic of the change.
Inside the state-of-the-art building, hands-on classes run the gamut from auto shop to biotech to robotics.
"For a lot of kids, this class is where the light bulb goes on," Tom Jacoubowsky, Gunn's assistant principal, said.
"It's where they discover something they love. It's the biggest joy of their day."
Students in Gunn's bright new auto shop, overseen by veteran Mazda mechanic Mike Camicia, can tinker with a '74 Chevy Nova, a '79 Mazda Rx-7 or a '65 Surf Woody chassis.
"I just kind of point the students in the right direction and they do what needs to be done," Camicia said.
"This car right here is kind of interesting," he said, pointing to the Surf Woody-in-progress, consisting of a chassis, suspension, engine, transmission and rear axle.
"It started out with some girls a couple of years back — in fact, one of them was the homecoming queen.
"They took a plastic model car kit that was 1/25th scale and said, 'OK, we're going to duplicate this.
"They had to do all the math and figure out all the dimensions" to make it full scale.
"The next thing we're going to do is start building the body — all built from a plethora of car parts lying around."
For some, Camicia's auto shop is the launching pad for careers in the industry.
Jacoubowsky recalled a student from an academically oriented family who discovered his passion in fixing cars.
While his siblings went off to universities, the student entered De Anza College's automotive program and become a certified mechanic for BMW.
"A couple of years after he graduated I saw his mother and asked how he was doing and she said he had a high-paying job and was doing great.
"She was so thankful for this program and what it did for her son."
Tinkering under the hood creates natural opportunities for bonding among students and teachers, Camicia said.
"This is the kind of class where you get pretty close to people, standing next to them and talking about other things — not just cars. It's kind of a family thing.
"We stay pretty tight. I see some of the kids on a daily basis from 12 years ago, go to their weddings.
"That's what's nice about this particular class. It's more than just auto."
Indeed, Career Technical Education has grown far beyond the traditional auto, wood shop, cooking and sewing classes.
In rooms adjacent to Gunn's new auto shop, pre-engineering students design and build circuit boards. Others work on stress-testing their robotic creations for international competitions.
And in the video-production studio, each weekday morning, teens produce the Titan News, a five-minute segment televised at 7:55 a.m. in every Gunn classroom.
"The way Career Technical Education has morphed, it's created more opportunities for the college path than before — new avenues for students," Jacoubowsky, the assistant principal, said.
Palo Alto's high schools require two semesters of Career Technical Education to graduate, with choices ranging from animation to food to web-page design.
"There's going to be something for everybody," Jacoubowsky said. "No student is going to Gunn or Paly and say, 'Oh my gosh, I'm going to have to take something I don't like."
Meanwhile, Palo Alto High School's planned new Media Arts Building, set to break ground next year, also will house a smorgasbord of Career Tech choices.
Career tech received an important boost from Schwarzenegger, who has backed focused investment in the field and held California's first "Career Technical Education Summit" in 2007.
At that time, Schwarzenegger said he learned to be a salesman between age 15 and 18.
"I learned about selling, marketing products, publicizing, how to elevate your products and make them shine compared to others, and how to do inventory, how to do bookkeeping, accounting, writing business letters, how to deal with customers, math, language skills, and on and on and on.
"Little did I know then that I would be using this kind of information and knowledge that I've gained the rest of my life. I was able to use those skills in selling body building; I was able to use those skills in marketing my movies. And now as governor I'm very happy that I had this training, to go out and to sell California products worldwide on our trade missions and in other ways.
"So to me it is very important that we also let our students know that what they are learning, they can use that for the rest of their lives."
Another reason Schwarzenegger may be passionate about career tech is that "California's high schools are not working for large numbers of young people," according to the Coalition for Multiple Pathways, an alliance of business, education and industry groups.
"Almost a third of new ninth-graders drop out before graduating. Another third finish high school but lack the academic and technical readiness to succeed in college or career.
"Only a third of high school students in California graduate on time and transition easily to postsecondary education and lasting career success."
Schwarzenegger said California will need 132,000 nurses by 2014, 73,000 carpenters, 25,000 electricians, 12,000 welders and 250,000 workers in nanotechnology production.
While the governor's notion of career tech stresses traditional skilled labor, the "multiple pathways" model promotes the idea of a career "pathway," which allows students to branch off at any number of levels, from washing lab ware to caring for lab animals to pursuing Ph.D.-level research.
"The great promise of pathways is the ability to make learning real and exciting for the thousands of students who are bored with conventional high school curricula," the coalition stated in its fact sheet.
"Whether they aspire to become doctors or medical technicians, architects or carpenters, all students hunger for the answer to the simple question: 'Why do I need to learn this?"
A little-known opportunity for Paly and Gunn students to knock off their Career Tech requirement exists in the Exploratory Experiences and Work Experiences programs.
There, students can receive credit for unpaid or paid work in Stanford University laboratories, solar-research firms, local restaurants, theaters, animal shelters and more.
The highly competitive — and paid — Lockheed Martin internship is run through the Work Experiences program.
Alums of that program have gone on to earn Ph.D.s and return to the company's advanced development program, known as Skunk Works.
Paly senior Erika Ji puts in about 12 hours a week at Lockheed, working on measuring the rotation of sunspots.
"It's really cool to be part of finding out more about the world, figuring out how the sun works and things like that," said Ji, a senior who says she's considering majoring in physics.
Though the sunspots project revolves around physics, the Lockheed job also has offered Ji hands-on experience in programming.
"I learned most of the programming on the job," she said. "I really like learning about the tools that can get you the information, allowing you to look at things systematically, or process a lot of information in a shorter amount of time.
"It definitely helps me think about different problems in a different way."
Special education students also make good use of Career Tech options.
"I'd like to believe we prepare all students for life after high school, not just college," said the district's Career Technical Education Coordinator Dave Hoshiwara.
"We have a contract with the Department of Rehabilitation that specifically works with students who have barriers to employment, and 90 percent of those have (special needs)," he said.
Beyond work-readiness, a particular goal of the program is ensuring that students with special needs get connected to state resources and agencies that can help them after graduation from high school.
Every day a group of special-education students, along with their "job coaches," head up to the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Hospital where they work stocking shelves in the gift shop or wiping down tables in the VA canteen.
Other local enterprises, including Papa Murphy's Pizza and Evvia Estiatorio
restaurant, have helped the program by employing students.
Veteran teacher Meri Gyves oversees both the Work Experience and Exploratory Experiences programs, shuttling among Gunn, Paly and student worksites to make sure things are running smoothly. Work Experience covers students with paid jobs, while Exploratory Experiences covers unpaid internships.
Workplaces in Gyves' programs are widely varied — from a cupcake shop to a stem cell research lab at Stanford. Another intern works with local novelist Harriet Chessman.
Gyves meets weekly with Work Experience students on each campus to dispense advice and keep tabs on student progress.
"We have some good news," Gyves announced last Tuesday to Paly students at a class meeting, motioning for a student, Emily, to share it with the class.
"Due to Ms. Gyves' recommendation I got a job at Sundance Steak House and should be starting within the next week," Emily said to the applause of her classmates.
Following such announcements, Gyves devoted the rest of the class period to interviewing skills, covering everything from first impressions, eye contact and handshaking skills, and the art of the thank-you note.
"Get to your interview early, because late is late," she advised.
"Employers don't care what your excuse is. They don't care if you were in traffic or if it's raining. In this economy, there's someone else who wants that job and they won't be late.
"Be sincere, smile, be friendly, don't be nervous," she continued. "Most of you are in customer service, dealing with people, and they want to see friendly faces."
Gyves helps students write resumes and, at semester's end, asks them to reflect on their experiences in writing.
Paly student Jessica Lin summed up her experience as a volunteer at Westwind Barn in Los Altos Hills, helping children with disabilities enjoy horseback riding.
Lin, a sophomore, had briefly taken riding lessons as a child and knew her interests lay in writing and helping people.
The experience at Westwind helped her to fill in the details about what a career might look like, and to refine her thoughts, she said.
Earlier she wrote in an essay: "I learned to work both with horses and with disabled people, and to see the difficulties and the benefits of helping in a therapeutic program for the disabled."
"Through this experience I learned to develop more patience.
"I loved the environment — green hills, with lovely trees, a nice barn and a supportive atmosphere.
"I also loved the work — both with horses and with the children. It gave me great joy to make the children happy, to provide a place for them where they could not be marked by their differences, but rather, appreciated for the beautiful human beings they are."