As the demands on America’s manufacturing sector continue to grow, employers’ need for access to reliable pools of qualified professionals to meet global demand and maintain our economic competitiveness has grown increasingly critical. Three-and-a-half million manufacturing-sector job openings are forecast through 2020, and more than 75% of employers in the field report moderate to severe talent shortages within their organizations today.
Career and technical education (CTE) programs at the secondary and postsecondary levels prepare students for careers in manufacturing by teaching advanced technical skills in fields such as welding, machining and robotics. In addition, CTE teaches employability skills that are vital in every career – from critical thinking to working in a team.
However, American manufacturing employers cannot truly tap into this growth potential while CTE professionals are trying to teach students critical skills with resources that have been flat or declining for more than a decade.
In my work with CTE teachers, principals, counselors and other professionals, I’ve seen the fantastic strides that students can make when they have the support, technology and guidance that they need to succeed. One example of the sort of high-caliber CTE program that every student deserves access to is that at Great Oaks Career and Technology Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Students in Great Oaks’ Precision Machining program study on state-of-the-art equipment and technologies that they will use in their careers, including computer assisted drafting and CNC machinery, which are in-demand skills at local businesses. They shadow professionals from their community to build professional networks and identify work-based learning activities that allow them to get their foot in the door in their industry, while also having access to opportunities to earn college credit or industry certifications like their OSHA 10 Hour card or National Institute for Metal Working Skills certification.
Perhaps most importantly, these students work with their mentors and counselors to identify their next move upon completion of the program--whether that’s additional education at a two- or four-year institution, entering the workforce or obtaining an industry-recognized credential.
There are CTE success stories like those from Great Oaks nationwide--but without federal support, these programs are left without the resources they need to keep the lights on and the doors open while investing in industry-grade equipment and teacher professional development aligned with cutting-edge practices.
For students to thrive and be prepared for 21st century manufacturing careers, Congress and the Administration must empower these educators through a robust, targeted federal investment in proven education programs that ready today’s students for tomorrow’s workforce--and that means building our investment in the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act (Perkins). Perkins is the principal source of dedicated federal funding for CTE, and lays the foundation for a system of education and skills development that serves millions of students nationwide by providing approximately $1.1 billion annually to support innovation and expansion of high-quality programs.
Federal investment has not, however, kept pace with the needs of CTE programs. Despite significant bipartisan support for CTE on Capitol Hill as a proven solution to overcoming the skills gap and training tomorrow’s workforce, total Perkins Grant funding to states has been eroding for years. More than half of CTE educators say that their program budgets have decreased in recent years, and total federal Perkins funding to states dropped by 13% from FY 2007 to FY 2014 (23% when adjusted for inflation). The loss of these resources nationally undercuts the capacity of schools like Great Oaks to provide the world-class learning opportunities students need to succeed in careers in important fields such as manufacturing, and leaves business and industry without the talent they need to achieve their goals.
CTE programs like Great Oaks that are preparing students for college and careers in advanced manufacturing continue to innovate and create new ways to train students for success but they can’t do more to fill the skills gap when Congress is asking them to do it with less. That’s why ACTE is working to partner with business leaders from the manufacturing community to build support for CTE. We believe that employers play a key role in building and sustaining an education system that reflects the needs of business and industry, and call on the manufacturing sector to educate our policymakers about the importance of making federal investment in Perkins a top priority.
Wilson is executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education.