Investing in career and technical education
By Mary Beth Wood
Twenty-five years after I graduated, I learned something important about my high school education. My job for our class reunion was to compile a memory book; over half our classmates responded to questions about early transgressions, family news and current employment. What I learned from that endeavor was this: some of the students who struggled mightily just to make it to graduation turned out to be successful business owners—entrepreneurs with payrolls and jobs that they loved. That was the first time that I questioned whether a traditional academic program, followed by four years of college, was the best avenue for success.
In the past, the worlds of economic development and workforce development were separate. That has changed as technology has given rise to a knowledge-based economy and increasing pressure from globalization and changing demographics have forced employers to scramble for their workforce. Economic developers are told repeatedly that the availability of skilled labor is one of the top reasons for a prospect choosing a location.
Traditional “firm-based” economic development is now supplemented by development of “human capital.” Emphasis is being placed on career and technical education, embedding entrepreneurial training in K-12 curriculum, and building workforce partnerships.
A prime example is the nine-county Wall Street West initiative in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Funded by a $15 million U.S. Department of Labor WIRED grant, the boldest and broadest goal of the initiative is “regional transformation” through the creation of an integrated and sustainable economic and workforce development system.
Strategic investment in both infrastructure and human capital is needed to create and sustain job growth, which brings me back to that first glimmer of knowledge from my reunion exercise. How do we prepare our workforce for the demands of the 21st-century economy?
The answer involves career and technical education (CTE). The U.S. Department of Labor projects 70 percent of the jobs created in the next decade will require education beyond high school, but only 20 percent will require a four-year college degree. A combination of 60 percent academic courses and 40 percent CTE is the most effective drop-out prevention for high school.
Currently, Wayne and Pike Counties are two of only three counties in the Commonwealth without a CTE facility. A community taskforce has been formed, led by the superintendents of Wallenpaupack Area, Wayne Highlands, and Western Wayne school districts, and a feasibility study will be conducted to determine the best facility plan for our region. This project would be aligned with current high school reform initiatives and the goals of Wall Street West.
Building a school with a new educational model will require innovation, flexibility and support from all stakeholders, including students, parents, educators, business and industry, higher education, government and the community.
The foundation is being laid, however, for vibrant business-education partnerships and skill development based on our region’s industry clusters and competitive assets. Our ability to attract and retain businesses will improve by providing educational infrastructure and workforce talent.
A strategic alliance between education and economic development will enable us to strengthen the workforce we have now and shape it to what we want it to be.
(Mary Beth Wood is the Executive Director of Wayne Economic Development Corporation, Wayne County, PA. She is a board member of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Alliance, Penn’s Northeast and Pocono Counties Workforce Investment Board.)