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Commentary—Vocational Education Decline Hurting Students, Firms

In the film “Field of Dreams,” the inspirational mantra was: “Build it and they will come.”

In California, the economic reality is: “They are coming, but we’re not going to have enough skilled workers to build it.”

As California’s appetite for new housing, infrastructure and schools continues to grow at unprecedented levels, our skilled work force is declining. One of the main reasons for this slide is the lack of vocational training in our schools.

Let’s be honest: Not every student is perfectly suited for the “college track.” But all students should graduate from high school with a plan for their future. Vocational education programs prepare students to be competitive in today’s dynamic marketplace. Unfortunately, the vast majority of “voc ed” programs have closed in the last 20 years. According to the California Department of Education, about 75 percent of “industrial technology” (automotive, construction, manufacturing) education programs in California’s public school system have been shelved.

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One reason for so many abandoned programs is the teacher shortage. Since the late 1970s, institutions of higher education in California have steadily closed Industrial Technology Education credentialing programs. According to the state Department of Education, today there are only 40 individuals enrolled in credential programs to become teachers of ITE programs.

Recruiting Craftspersons Difficult

A recent survey by the Department of Education Industrial Technical Education Task Force identified a demand for more than 300 new teachers. To further compound this challenge, recruiting high-wage craftspersons is difficult, because choosing to teach is not always a financially sound decision given teachers’ salaries.

Perhaps the most daunting hurdle for vocational programs is the current mindset of school boards, teachers, counselors and parents who seem to have embraced college prep with such passion that they’ve little energy left over to plan relevant programs for the hundreds of thousands of kids who won’t be going on to a university.

A little perspective can be illuminating: According to the California Post-Secondary Education Commission, less than 14 percent of Californians have graduated from college.

Despite this reality, our schools continue to shun vocational programs.

Graduates Without Skills

The result is that increasing numbers of high-school students are graduating without a useful skill that translates into a high-wage career. This fact is especially alarming because the number of unskilled jobs in our economy has been declining for decades, from more than 50 percent in the 1950s, to 35 percent in 1995 and 15 percent today.

The net result is a system that focuses on preparing students for college even though most will not go on to graduate from a postsecondary institution. To meet the needs of all students, as well as consumers and businesses, California must renew its commitment to vocational education.

The brutal irony is that while our schools have closed vocational programs in record numbers, business and industry are not able to find qualified technically trained individuals to fill essential positions in construction, manufacturing and related industries.

Nationally, the Hudson Institute reports that the construction industry needs 240,000 new construction workers per year to keep pace with the demand for service. In California, our Employment Development Department projects a 25 percent growth in new construction jobs from 1996-2006. If California is going to remain competitive, we must expand our supply of skilled workers.

Legislative Attention

The good news is that the issue of vocational education is beginning to get some much-deserved attention in the Legislature. A package of bills has been introduced that will address many issues contributing to the decline.

Assemblyman Anthony Pescetti’s AB-2298, Assemblyman Bill Campbell’s AB-1623, Assemblyman Rod Wright’s AB-2087, and Senator Richard Rainey’s SB-1790 contain a wide range of reforms designed to get our schools back in the business of preparing students for their futures. From expanding the opportunities for career training in existing graduation requirements and collecting data on such programs, to providing much-needed new equipment and requiring a standard curriculum, the provisions of these bills will likely be refined and perhaps merged.

But the dire need for technically competent graduates and programs to keep students engaged in the educational process has never been more pressing. If we fail to act now, we not only place the state’s productivity and economic future in jeopardy, but we will continue to shortchange our students and their American dream of a secure and productive future.

The construction industry commends these legislators for engaging this long overdue issue and urges Californians to contact their Legislators and ask them to support these bills.

McCauley is executive vice president of the California Coalition for Construction in the Classroom, a statewide advocacy organization for the construction industry.

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