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OP-ED: Applauding a plan to invest in career technical education

DJC300This column originally appeared in The Daily Journal of Commerce in Buildings Bridges and Roads
By: Mike Salsgiver

Mike SalsgiverAs an industry, we have a lot to be thankful for this year. We are beginning to see the light at the end of this recession marked by a slow yet steady uptick in construction work.

We are also looking ahead to another long legislative session in Salem and are seeing progress on a key industry initiative to restore funding support for vocational education, known today as career technical education, or CTE.

On Monday, December 1, the governor released his proposed budget for the 2015–2017 biennium—nearly $65.5 million of which is designated for CTE at secondary and post-secondary levels. By refilling and growing existing grant programs, as well as making a significant formula funding change, the governor is creating the ability to permanently fund CTE programs across the state.

This critical funding comes at a time when construction companies are facing more retirements and a lack of skilled workers than ever before. When you combine the aging trend of the baby boomers that make up a majority of Oregon’s construction workforce with the need to add more skilled workers, our state alone will need to add over 23,000 skilled workers by the year 2020.

We as contractors know that quality, comprehensive craft training is fundamental to the development of a skilled workforce. In turn, a skilled workforce is essential to a productive and sustainable construction industry as it climbs its way out of recession. With nearly 60 percent of construction firms in our state reporting difficulty in finding enough skilled workers to fill key professional and craft positions, it is evident that the so-called skills gap—the idea that the skills of the workforce may not be up to snuff for the needs of the workplace—has manifested itself here in Oregon. That gap can be the product of any number of factors, from the rapid pace of technological change to economic uncertainty, but one stands out more than any other: education.

The crippling of the education pipeline for construction can be seen in many educational trends, including the dismantling of public vocational and technical education programs. Over the years and during the recent economic recession, over 600 (50 percent) of Oregon’s secondary CTE programs were eliminated, reducing school districts’ connections to their local and regional workforce and educational leaders.

Similarly, the correlation between Oregon’s dropout rate and the decline in vocational/CTE education is staggering. With a nearly 50 percent reduction in CTE programs, Oregon’s public high school graduation rate fell to only 68 percent as of 2012, a full 12 percentage points below the national average. Oregon’s low graduation rates can be associated with nearly $400 million in costs to the state.

These figures demonstrate that a fundamental change is needed within public high schools to keep students motivated and interested. These are capable, intelligent young people, but they do not perform well within the traditional education environment. If left unaddressed, low graduation rates will continue to plague Oregon’s workforce and economy.

As industry members and leaders, it is our duty to stress that there are alternative paths forward. Apprenticeships and other programs under the CTE “umbrella” that focus on the development of technical, in-demand skills are examples of these other paths forward.

The CTE of today looks nothing like the vocational education classes of the past. Today’s CTE instruction and work experiences incorporate the integration of academic, technical, and employability skills; leverage business and industry resources; and encourage the attainment of meaningful industry credentials and degrees. Oregon organizes CTE programs around six major career cluster areas and 120 career-focused pathways, all of which help students move on from the classroom to high-wage and high-demand careers with meaningful work.

In the 2012–2014 biennium, the CTE Revitalization Grant incentive program (funded by the past two Oregon legislatures) invested a total of $12 million in CTE across the state. As of today, over forty CTE Revitalization Grants have been awarded, positively impacting over 160 high schools and middle schools. Of that $12 million, approximately $9.8 million funded grants with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) embedded in the CTE projects, and $9.1 million funded grants that had career and technical student organizations embedded in the CTE projects. This is a wonderful beginning, but greater investment is needed to elevate CTE programs to an economically impactful level.

CTE is reactive to the demands of an ever-changing economy. With the governor’s allocation of the proposed 2015–2017 CTE-specific funds, he continues to recognize what we in the industry already know: CTE holds untapped potential as an economic and education strategy in strengthening our workforce and Oregon’s economy by preparing students for both college and careers.

As it appears now, the governor’s proposed 2015–2017 biennium budget for CTE-specific funds breaks down as follows:

• $11 million from the K–12 CTE funding formula change
• $30 million post-secondary investment for CTE support and/or strategic initiates to reverse the decline of CTE and improve student opportunities and state economic vitality
• $12 million for local CTE Revitalization Grants (grade 9–14) and career and technical education student leadership organizations
• $5 million for regional CTE Pathway Grants (grade 9–14 and middle school as appropriate)
• $7.5 million for CTE youth engagement summer programs

Together, these funds total nearly $65.5 million.

While the governor’s proposed budget is only the first step in the biennial budget process, it typically sets the tone for the upcoming legislative session when state lawmakers will vote on the overall spending plan. AGC, along with a coalition of industry and business partners, will continue to work toward greater recognition and funding for career and technical education.

For now, we applaud the governor’s work on this critical issue as a means to improve both the construction industry and Oregon’s overall economic well-being. We hope the legislature will see the wisdom in and the need to support this request as the 2015 session progresses.

Mike Salsgiver is executive director of the Associated General Contractors Oregon-Columbia Chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or

To view the column online, please click here (DJC subscription required).

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