News and Tribune

January 28, 2013

HAYDEN: More vocational support is sorely needed

By MAUREEN HAYDEN
CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — Republican Gov. Mike Pence and Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz made headlines last week when they appeared at an “innovation” summit and said they were in agreement that Indiana needed to do more to support vocational education. 

It seemed newsworthy at the time, given Pence and Ritz agree on so little when it comes to the dirty details of education reform. 

But, with no disrespect to either of them, big whoop. 

The real news that day came after Pence and Ritz left the summit and audience members, were given this dose of reality: For the $100 million Indiana is already spending on vocational education every year, it’s getting little in return. 

Among the speakers who delivered that news was Brian Bosworth, an economic development expert who’s been studying Indiana’s “skills gap.” (The term used to explain why there are so many people out of work while there are so many job openings that go unfilled.) 

Bosworth has found, for example, that about 100,000 of Indiana’s 330,000 high school students take a vocational education class every year. But few stay in the pipeline that could them the training they need: Of that 100,000, only about 10,000 students graduate with both a high school diploma and a concentration — or six credit hours — in a vocational or technical field.  

And few high school students — 15 percent at most — that do take vocational education courses in manufacturing or pre-engineering go on to pursue post-secondary training in those high-paying fields. 

Worse in some ways is what’s happening on the post-secondary level, Bosworth said. In Indiana’s two-year colleges, only about 10 percent of students enrolled in a technical program of study complete their degree.

Following Bosworth at the podium was Mark Gerstle, vice president and chief administrative officer at Cummins Inc., a global manufacturer of engines, which has its headquarters in Columbus. Gerstle was just as blunt as Bosworth, saying too many Indiana students are coming out of high schools and college ill-prepared to enter the work force. 

Gerstle and Cummins have been working to change that. In schools in and around Columbus, Cummins has invested significant resources, from funding early childhood education to help close the “achievement gap” suffered by too many low-income children, to partnering in innovative school-to-work training programs that propel students toward success.

There are signs that investment is paying off. The number of students in the Columbus schools, for example, who are graduating with a vocational/technical honors degree (which requires real-world work experience) is six times higher than the statewide rate. 

Gerstle also warned his audience that the biggest stumbling block to innovation is the inability — or unwillingness — to see what’s clearly not working. 

He told a funny story about how too often in education (and government and corporate America, as well) no one wants to admit that they’re riding a dead horse. 

Instead, they opt for other strategies: They buy a stronger whip, or change riders, or threaten the horse with termination, or appoint a committee to study the horse, or reclassify the horse as “living impaired” or do anything except the obvious: Get off the dead horse.

— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com