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The Powerful Role of Career and Technical Education in Today’s Workforce

The EvoLLLution | The Powerful Role of Career and Technical Education in Today’s Workforce
Career and technical education programs are critical to the health of the American economy and to the work-readiness of Americans, and this role needs to be recognized in future drafts of the Higher Education Act.

On September 22, 2015, I participated in a Career and Technical Education (CTE) panel for the US Senate CTE Caucus in Washington DC. Led by Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA), Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the 15-member Caucus meeting had broad representation from higher education and industry associations. I shared comments as the Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education for the State of Montana and as current chairman for the National Council of State Community College Systems Directors.

As Congress considers reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEA), the skill shortage challenges facing our nation’s economy must be central to these debates. More than ever before, some form of postsecondary education and training beyond a high school diploma is required for student success in today’s job market. The Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce estimates that by 2020, nearly two-thirds of all jobs in this country will require a postsecondary credential as a basic prerequisite for employment. At the same time, the skills gap and mismatch continues to be a persistent problem for US employers.

In my home state of Montana, we have an employment gap forming with over 130,000 baby boomers projected to retire in the next decade. This, coupled with the fact that we have only 123,000 Montanans between the ages of 16-24 (recognizing that not all of them will become members of our state’s workforce) suggests Montana is facing a workforce gap. The workforce gap will widen when we consider Montana’s growing energy, manufacturing and healthcare needs.

Montana is not alone with these challenges. In 2015, the Manpower Group’s annual Talent Shortage Survey found that nearly one-third of all US employers have reported difficulty in filling open positions within their firms. Earlier this month, data from the US Department of Labor shows that there are currently 5.8 million job openings in the US.

America’s community colleges, four-year colleges and universities are critical to ensuring that our nation has a well-prepared future workforce. During the September 22 Senate CTE Caucus, I asked members to imagine what would happen if one of them had become involved in a serious accident. Responders to that accident would include staff from the 911 emergency response office, EMTs and ambulance personnel, emergency room staff, nurses, radiological technicians and medical coding specialists. These people probably received their training at one of our nation’s two-year and community colleges. In fact, the basic infrastructure of our society depends largely on our nation’s ability to produce new graduates at the two-year college level, in addition to the university degrees that are the traditional focus of national postsecondary dialogue.

We are grateful for funding provided through the US Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program (TAACCCT), which provided nearly two billion dollars for workforce training over four rounds of funding. Other programs such as the Carl D. Perkins program, administered through the US Department of Education, provide opportunities to advance career and technical education at both the secondary and postsecondary levels.

Montana receives about $5 million a year from Perkins and over the last two years, received two state-wide TAACCCT grants for a total of $40 million. I shared a few examples of this funding’s impact on Montana with the CTE Caucus.

1. Address Advanced Manufacturing and Energy workforce training needs in our state:

Over the past two years, our first TAACCCT grant allowed us to connect our state’s 13 college partners with over 250 business and industries to align workforce training programs in welding, machining, industrial electronics, industrial maintenance through new industry-recognized credentials.

Over the past 20 months, we have trained over 1,500 new workers to serve our state’s growing oil, gas and coal industries (with an average program completion rate of nearly 80 percent).

With the help of our Perkins funding, we have doubled our dual credit programs. Montana’s Board of Regents reduced dual credit tuition to ¼ of university tuition saving Montana families over $4 million dollars in tuition and fees just this past year! Montana’s dual credit students have access to CTE credentials while in high school. For example, in Great Falls, high school students can earn their Certificate of Applied Science degree in welding or carpentry from Great Falls College MSU one month before they receive their high school diploma – this is critical as we have hundreds of unfilled welding and advanced manufacturing jobs in Montana due to our state’s rapidly growing natural resources economy.

2. Redesign Montana’s Allied Health and Nursing Curricula:

This might have been considered impossible a few years ago. Nearly 100 nursing and allied health faculty from our two-year and four-year colleges met with Montana’s healthcare industry representatives to completely redesign our healthcare curriculum. We are analyzing which classes high school students should take, opportunities for dual credit, and streamlined pathways for nursing and allied health students to complete their associate’s degree and move on to their bachelor’s degree. The result will be that two-year college RNs will be able to complete their BSN with just three additional semesters as compared with five previously.

We have created accelerated access points for LPNs: a request from industry.

We are designing a common healthcare clinical and non-clinical core, which makes it easier for students to lattice between programs without repeating core classes. We are also creating new CBE healthcare apprenticeship opportunities.

3. Reaching out to more Adult Learners

With Montana’s unemployment below 4% and the impending retirement of baby boomers in the next 3 to 5 years that will shrink our workforce by 25 to 30 percent, we do not have enough people in the pipeline to meet our needs.

In Montana, we are reaching out to more adults to help them earn a degree or postsecondary credential. Our Board of Regents recently passed a sweeping set of statewide PLA policies and guidelines to dramatically increase the ability for adult learners to get credit for demonstrated prior learning.

In addition, partnership with our state’s Department of Labor and Industry has resulted in the creation of new apprenticeship training opportunities in healthcare.

Many of our adult learners are interested in earning short-term industry recognized credentials, and allowing financial aid to help these folks gain short-term education and postsecondary training would be helpful.

These examples underscore the critical difference the US DOL and Perkins funding makes to help our colleges address Montana’s labor market issues.

The HEA legislation is our nation’s largest investment in our workforce and ensures that this crucial investment keeps pace with our changing economy. Robust discussion at the September 22, 2015 Senate CTE Caucus stressed the importance of ensuring our nations’ institutions of higher education are able to respond to the nation’s changing workforce needs. The panel that testified to the caucus was moderated by ACTE Deputy Executive Director Stephen DeWitt and included Harry Snyder, the President of Great Oaks Career Campuses (and ACTE member); Kermit Kaleba, Federal Policy Director for the National Skills Coalition; Jennifer Stiddard, Senior Public Policy Associate with the Association of Community College Trustees; and myself. As a panel, we provided several key recommendations:

1)   Expand Title IV financial aid access to support shorter-term training and education programs that lead to high-demand industry needs;

2)   Reinstate year-round Pell and introduce other provisions that expand access to federal financial aid to accelerate student learning and promote greater levels of completion;

3)    Ensure that the next iteration of HEA includes robust support for innovative practices such as competency-based education;

4)    Give consideration to a new round of funding opportunities similar to the TAACCCT (which was one-time-only).

CTE programs are critical to the basic function of society. My hope is that members of the Senate and House will recognize this as the HEA legislation moves forward.

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