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October 15, 2015

Investments in Workforce Training Should Start in Our Schools

Creating jobs and growing Virginia’s economy are important priorities as we recover from the economic recession. In order to support these goals, lawmakers should invest in our schools and support career and technical education (CTE), which helps make sure that Virginia businesses have the trained workers they need.

In efforts to support economic growth, state leaders have rightly looked to increase the skills of our workforce. Governor McAuliffe has introduced initiatives that try to encourage partnerships between employers and educators, improve apprenticeship opportunities, and award more credentials in high-demand fields. Yet, career and technical education, the state’s largest workforce training program, has seen little attention and received declining support due to short-sighted changes by legislators to how the state determines the costs of schooling. It’s time for lawmakers to fix this problem.

Career and technical education provided by Virginia’s high schools prepares students with marketable skills in areas like information technology, manufacturing, and the health sciences that can be used by high-school graduates to find immediate employment or gain entry into community and technical colleges. These courses offer students a career pathway that allows them to sidestep the rising cost of tuition at four-year colleges and enter the job market with sought-after skills and expertise.

Despite the critical role CTE plays in our economy, funding has decreased because the state has reduced support for Virginia’s schools. State support for CTE coursework is included in the formula set by the state to ensure that school divisions have the resources necessary to meet minimum standards of quality. However, lawmakers have decreased their support for schools by making changes to this formula, which could shortchange school divisions by almost $2.5 billion over the next two budget years compared to historic funding.

Career and technical education has been one of the areas of instruction hardest hit by the cuts.

A recent survey of school divisions shows that most divisions have been forced to reduce their curriculum over the last year, and in making these cuts, they have largely targeted CTE classes. Forty-two percent of the eliminated programs across the state were CTE courses. This makes clear that as schools tighten their belts, CTE courses – which often require expensive equipment and specialized instructors – are some of the first to go, at the expense of a critical pipeline for students to earn good-paying jobs without a four-year college degree.

But these cuts don’t just affect students; they also hurt employers who are in need of workers with the skills these classes teach. In a survey of school CTE directors, most (70 percent) indicated that they are unable to offer classes that are in-demand from employers. The CTE classes in the highest demand were in areas such as the health sciences, information technology, and manufacturing, which can require costly equipment. It’s no surprise schools cite the high cost of purchasing equipment and difficulty finding instructors as reasons for not providing these in-demand classes.

The consequence of state lawmakers underfunding CTE programs is that schools have to let their budget determine the curriculum, rather than the state’s workforce needs. A review performed by the state’s legislative oversight agency in 2014, found a mismatch between the CTE classes offered in high-school and the needs of employers. In particular, high schools were not providing courses in the health sciences, which is a major industry throughout the state and accounted for 18 percent of the job openings in the state in 2013, but only three percent of the CTE courses.

As the governor and legislators look to build-up our workforce and revive Virginia’s economy, the next step should be to restore their investment in Virginia’s high schools and support for career and technical education.

–Chris Duncombe, Policy Analyst

The Commonwealth Institute

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