The WVBOE is committed to ensuring that West Virginia's students meet rigorous standards of achievement. We recognize it is equally critical to provide the job skills necessary for our students' future success. Currently, even in the midst of a recession, there are approximately 3.6 million open jobs in America, indicating a skills gap between what is being taught in our schools and what employers require to fill a position. In the state of West Virginia, 90 percent of the fastest growing jobs require some education beyond high school.
West Virginia's policymakers have been on the right track by instructing education leaders in the preK-12 system, career technical education (CTE), and the community and technical colleges (CTCs) to work collaboratively to develop a seamless curriculum and a "continuum of competencies" that allow students to transition from one education level to another, eliminating unnecessary duplication. Although numerous collaborations have been developed, more are needed. Reinstituting and reconvening the Governor's 21st Century Jobs Cabinet, an advisory board created to assist with pre-k through post-secondary education issues and to coordinate decision-making among the agencies involved in the state's educational, job creation and economic development efforts. The cabinet would be a beneficial mechanism to ensure cross collaboration between all entities, without competition for enrollment and without programmatic overlap.
Current terminology refers to "middle skill" jobs as those jobs that require training beyond high school but do not require completion of a bachelor's degree. The term "middle" is misleading in that the jobs are in high demand, require high-level training and skills, and result in a salary that is anything but middle. Middle skill jobs include certifications in information technology, computer-controlled machine operators, surgical technicians, respiratory therapists, aircraft technicians, and building and industrial maintenance workers, just to mention a few. Mainstay providers of these programs are career technical centers and community and technical colleges.
Today, more than 54 percent of jobs in West Virginia require middle skill training and only 45 percent of current workers meet even the minimum qualifications for those jobs. Over the next decade, almost half of all new jobs created will be in the middle skill category, generating a work force demand that will make or break the economy of the state.
Addressing the middle skill gap must begin immediately. Among the many challenges is the creation of rigorous and relevant CTE programs, which are clearly and genuinely partnered with specific community college programs.
Recent passage of House Bill (HB) 436 supports and fosters new and strong career pathways from career and technical centers into community colleges. The bill emphasizes program-to-program articulation from CTEs to community and technical colleges, promoting a proven best practice in transitioning students. Continued support for and implementation of SB 436 will improve the system for middle skill work force development in West Virginia.
An improved system will not meet our needs unless we raise the participation rate of secondary students in career technical programs. One approach necessary to help meet that goal is to create an effective pipeline beginning at the middle school level. Starting in middle school or even earlier, students must be able to explore career options and requirements, helping them develop areas of interest and understand what courses are necessary for success in any given field.
It is important to change the mindset of students to open up their thinking toward a broad brush of post-secondary options versus a singular choice. Mentors and e-mentors are important in directing students into pathways where they can see the connection between career development and education options, such as a career and technical college, 2- and 4-year colleges and universities, and vocational programs.
Another potential aid is cross-counseling, whereby CTEs assign personnel to middle school campuses to provide accurate and current information and strategies to all students. The WVBOE believes that a robust cross-counseling program will have several positive effects, including reduced dropout rates and improved student engagement.
Recently, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation funded the establishment of an online tool to allow students to examine areas of career interest and connect to actual jobs in our state. Strategies such as improving the use of job forecasting data can lead to our schools' designing better programs of study to prepare students for their post-secondary education and the workplace. These tools and strategies are important, but West Virginia must have effective mechanisms in place to ensure a seamless curriculum from preschool to college.
Providing flexibility in state Code is important in promoting innovative practices. Innovation Zone legislation has been an excellent beginning, but we need to extend the parameters and its outreach. This will require legislative action, deep and meaningful business partnerships, and educator support.
The ultimate goal is for West Virginia's students to not only achieve high standards of academic achievement, but also to readily access and learn the job skills of their future. As we actively engage our students in their learning through real world experiences mirroring the workplace, students will be prepared and focused on their future careers.