Opinion

If California wants a skilled workforce, why let career technical education go away?

Mendota High’s Riley Lopez uses a level as he and other students learn how to attach sheet metal to a structure, during a job-shadowing day at Four C’s Construction, coordinated by the Fresno County Office of Education’s Career Technical Education program, Thursday morning, Jan. 19, 2017.
Mendota High’s Riley Lopez uses a level as he and other students learn how to attach sheet metal to a structure, during a job-shadowing day at Four C’s Construction, coordinated by the Fresno County Office of Education’s Career Technical Education program, Thursday morning, Jan. 19, 2017. jwalker@fresnobee.com

California is justifiably proud of its technologically advanced and diverse manufacturing economy. But the future is at risk if we don’t have a skilled workforce for these high-wage jobs.

California manufacturers already struggle to fill open positions, and the nationwide “skills gap” of unfilled jobs is estimated to reach 2 million by the year 2025. Sadly, the state is not doing enough to fill the pipeline of workers manufacturers will need in the years to come.

Part of the problem is a public education system that has been neglecting career and technical education, or “CTE”, for many decades. In 1987 nearly 74 percent of California high school students participated in at least one CTE class, but by 2009 this had fallen to a paltry 29 percent.

In 2011 alone, the state Department of Education reported that the number of CTE instructors dropped by some 20 percent from the year prior. Instead of acknowledging the crisis, the department decided to disavow their own report and stopped producing similar annual statistics on CTE, sweeping the disturbing trends under the rug.

For years, my association of state manufacturers and the state Building and Construction Trades Council have partnered through the Get REAL Coalition (Relevance in Education And Learning) to make CTE a priority on par with other educational goals. We know that the real-world skills learned in CTE programs are not only good for employers, they also reduce drop-out rates, encourage post-secondary certifications, improve college scores, and open doors to careers that are ladders to the middle class.

We fight for education policies to require, fund and measure effective CTE programs. It is an uphill battle. In 2009 an ambitious bill by the current Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to require CTE for all high school students failed despite bipartisan support. Our requests for audits of state spending on CTE have fallen on deaf ears.

So CTE programs continue to erode. In the early 1980s the department employed nearly 200 subject-matter, industry-experienced CTE consultants throughout the state to keep programs relevant, in part by connecting CTE teachers and industry partners. Today there are less than 20 consultants due to retirements and unfilled positions.

What will it take to restore these meaningful programs? The CTE Incentive Grant Program received ongoing funding this year, but the amount was much lower than historic levels and a new layer of bureaucracy will create uncertainty for employers.

For a sustainable CTE curriculum, we should at least increase CTE funding to historic levels, add CTE to the list of 13 courses all students must take to graduate, and monitor the success of graduates as they pursue careers beyond school.

Some states will compete for new manufacturing investments by offering generous tax incentives. While helpful, that strategy won’t win unless they also have a skilled workforce.

California must restore robust and modern CTE at every middle and high school campus to keep us on the short list for new manufacturing investments and middle-class jobs to power the state’s economy.

Dorothy Rothrock is president of the California Manufacturers & Technology Association and a co-chair of the Get REAL coalition. Reach her at drothrock@cmta.net.

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