Kennedy op/ed: Tailor voc tech ed to workforce needs
Last year, a coalition of 238 businesses, schools, and trade associations sent a letter to Congress asking us to reauthorize and update the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006. From Raytheon to the NAACP to the Corn Refiners Association, this diverse group reached a notable consensus on a national imperative: education can help both students and businesses succeed.
While you won’t often see the Perkins Act in the news, it forms the foundation of our investment in career and technical education. CTE programs are the unsung heroes of public education. By blending rigorous classroom academics with technical training, CTE turns students into career professionals in core industries such as hospitality, manufacturing, and technology.
While unemployment in the commonwealth is at its lowest level since May 2008, there are still 180,000 Bay Staters out of work. Meanwhile, nearly 70 percent of the state’s employers say they struggle to find qualified workers. As communities across the country wrestle with this type of “skills gap,” too many adults lack the credentials required for good middle-class jobs. We need to double down on our efforts to help all Americans find a place in the modern economy, and vocational education is one of our most powerful tools to meet that challenge.
But for CTE to work effectively, it has to be aligned with what employers need. The 238 groups that wrote to Congress reminded us that we need to be training students for the jobs that exist, not the ones that used to exist.
That’s what the Perkins Modernization Act — a bipartisan bill I introduced in Congress — aims to do. Authored with Republican U.S. Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Rodney Davis of Illinois and Democratic Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado, our bill uses workforce data to identify which sectors and occupations are “in demand” in regional economies. It then ensures that CTE is tailored accordingly.
Here in Massachusetts, we have a first-class education community that leads the nation and has debunked old stereotypes about vocational education. I have watched vocational students in my district build and design everything from Segways to military equipment models to wind turbines. Some of them are already hard at work at places such as EMC Corp., one of the leading big-data companies in the world. With dropout rates at half the state average for traditional high schools, and with tangible ties to the jobs that power our economy, the commonwealth’s CTE programs should serve as models for federal policy.
If we’re committed to fostering a pro-growth environment where government helps entrepreneurs succeed, then we need to keep the lines of communication open between educators and industry. If we’re committed to fighting unemployment, and if we’re committed to using taxpayer dollars as effectively as possible, we have to make sure that federal funding for CTE is guided by workforce data that keeps it responsive to the evolving needs of employers. Republicans and Democrats can agree on that.