News and Tribune

Floyd County

June 17, 2014

Indiana employers want students to take engineering, not metal shop

State revamps approach to career training

GREENSBURG, Ind. — Tom Hunter resisted sending students into vocational education.

The Greensburg school superintendent spent years promoting college as a pathway to success for students from the community — population 11,747 — hit hard by the Great Recession. Four plants in the area were closed. All that was left were mostly low-paying, low-skilled jobs.

If employers complained to Hunter that his graduates lacked entry-level work skills, his response was curt: “It’s not my job to turn out good worker bees.”

These days Hunter takes a different view.

In July, Hunter and the Greensburg schools will open a $2 million, 16,000-square-foot training center that, with the help of local employers, creates a pipeline for students into two of Indiana’s fastest growing industries — advanced manufacturing and logistics.

Hunter sees the program as an alternative for nearly 40 percent of Greensburg students who, struggling in school, may not have the option of pursuing a traditional, four-year college degree.

“I don’t want a kid coming to school just to go to work,” he said. “And I definitely don’t want a kid to come to school to flip hamburgers. I don’t mean anything against McDonald’s, but that’s not the skill level we’re reaching for.”

Greensburg’s training center and Hunter’s conversion illustrate a broader rethinking of vocational education throughout Indiana.

In the coming months, under a mandate from Gov. Mike Pence and the legislature, high schools will refocus on what is now called “career and technical education,” and redirect millions of dollars toward preparing students for higher skilled, more demanding, better paying work.

They must move fast. In just six years nearly two-thirds of the jobs in Indiana will require training beyond a traditional high school diploma, according to the Indiana Career Council. But just a third of the adult workforce has any post-secondary education.

But reforming “voke ed” forces schools, students, businesses and leaders like Hunter to abandon old notions of career training.

HIGH-SKILLED HOOSIERS

Indiana already has an abundance of vocational education opportunities, though not all are useful, according to many assessments.

A year before Pence took office, a study commissioned by the Indiana Education Roundtable showed about 100,000 of the state’s 330,000 high school students take one or more vocational courses each year. Indiana schools offer 160 different vocational classes, at a cost of about $100 million a year.

The 2011 report also discovered only about 10,000 students graduate each year with a high school diploma and a vocational or technical concentration, which is just six credit hours.

Few of those students — 15 percent at most — take courses in advanced manufacturing or pre-engineering and then pursue training in those fields after high school. Most students take a single elective, such as welding or early childhood education, which offers little work-ready training.

On Monday, a Pence-appointed task force recommended a new workforce strategic plan that includes a major overhaul of vocational education and how the state pays for it.

“The future of the state’s economic growth,” says a draft of the report, “depends on a Hoosier workforce in possession of the skills needed by high-growth, high-demand industry sectors.”

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