Aligning Education to Work Force Needs Necessary By Robert Dunlevy

Posted: December 04, 2012

The Intel Corp recently surveyed parents and found that many of them are better equipped to talk with their teenagers about drug abuse than math and science. This should concern us all – educators and parents, legislators and employers, community leaders and mentors – because a strong background in math and science is increasingly critical for success in today’s job market.

Unfortunately, the rush to help students improve in math and science has created an unintended "college for all" mentality. This push toward a four-year college degree has put many employers in a vexing spot, struggling to fill openings that require specialized training.

As the West Virginia Board of Education works to address and implement recommendations of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s “Education Efficiency Audit of West Virginia’s Primary and Secondary Education System,” we must not forget it is vital that public education aligns with work force needs. The board’s audit response “Audit to Action: Students First,” available at http://wvde.state.wv.us/policies/audit-response.html,  addresses areas where that alignment can be strengthened.

A recent study commissioned by the State of West Virginia showed more than two-thirds of our state’s manufacturing employers reported a shortage of qualified job candidates in a state where the jobless rate is pushing 8 percent. They say too few job applicants can read a blueprint, operate computerized equipment or successfully tackle the other tasks involved in today’s high-tech manufacturing.

Nationally, in the midst of an economy struggling to grow, 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 As educators, policymakers and decision-makers, it is our responsibility to address this issue if we want our state and nation to prosper.

We not only want to ensure all students have the opportunity to attend a four-year college but also support opportunities for students to develop skills that a career technical center or and two-year community college can provide. We do so by creating an educational system that is seamless from preschool, to elementary school, to middle school, to high school to post-secondary education to the work force.

Statistically, 90 percent of the fastest growing jobs require some education beyond high school but not necessarily a four-year college degree. About half of all employment today is still in the middle-skill occupations.

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.

Addressing the middle skill gap in our state must begin immediately. Among the many challenges is the creation of rigorous and relevant career technical education 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 career technical education to community and technical colleges, promoting a proven best practice in transitioning students. Continued support for and implementation of HB 436 will improve the system for middle skill work force development in West Virginia.

However, an improved system will not meet our needs unless we raise the participation rate of secondary students in career technical programs. One approach recommended in the board’s audit response 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.

West Virginia’s policymakers have been on the right track by instructing education leaders in the preK-12 system, career technical education, the community and technical colleges, and our institutions of higher education to work collaboratively to develop a seamless curriculum that allows students to transition from one education level to another. Such a system helps address work force needs not only in the middle skills areas but elsewhere.

Although numerous collaborations have been developed, more are needed. The board’s audit response recommends reinstituting and reconvening the Governor’s 21st Century Jobs Cabinet. Sen. Joe Manchin created the advisory board during his first term as governor to assist with preschool 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 collaboration among all entities, without competition for enrollment and without programmatic overlap.   

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.

Dunlevy is secretary of the West Virginia Board of Education.

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