By MAUREEN HAYDEN
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.
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.”
Regional Works Councils, set up by Pence, have met with education and business leaders across the state. In an interview in May, Paul Perkins, chairman of the Region 10 Works Council, said Southern Indiana has a lot of opportunities for making career and technical education more robust, but they have to model new programs after what industries are thriving nearby.
“We’ve got a lot of good programs but we’ve also found a lot of gaps,” Perkins said. “We found through the data that we should have a much larger percentage of students pursuing the CTE component if we want to meet the needs of our region.”
He said manufacturing jobs outpace other industries by twice as much — including health care, transportation, construction and business services. He said school districts and facilities, like the Prosser Career Education Center in New Albany, need to consider those needs.
School districts in Southern Indiana are answering that call, though. In Greater Clark County Schools and others in Clark and Floyd counties, students choose career pathways to help guide which courses they take, including what level of any given subject and what electives they enroll in.
But Perkins, president at Amatrol in Jeffersonville — which provides training and solutions for industry and education outlets — also said while Prosser and other facilities like it offer programs to students, the high schools those students come from need to expand on those offerings and allow students to earn certifications in those areas. Otherwise, they’ll have to make up for it after graduation.
He said sometimes, students may not have an opportunity to explore any of those programs, especially if they don’t have a course to point them in the direction of something at Prosser.
“Prosser has a number of programs, but another problem that we also find is that sometimes, getting students to choose Prosser as an option requires them to be introduced to the subject matter at their home high school,” Perkins said. “It starts with an introductory courses at the home high schools to lead them into Prosser or other facilities.”
The New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp., Prosser’s home district, hopes to build onto the school if it can get the public to pass a funding referendum next year.
NOT AN ASSEMBLY LINE
Examples of quality vocational education already exist in Indiana. The Greensburg schools are modeling their program on one in nearby Columbus, home to the global headquarters of engine-maker Cummins Inc.
In the two Columbus high schools, students from a four-county region can take a range of vocational courses, from culinary arts to 3-D animation. But there’s increased focus on courses in manufacturing, health care and tourism — the three big industries in southeast Indiana.
A coalition of area businesses and school leaders, working through the public-private partnership known as Ec015 (Economic Opportunities through Education by 2015), have helped craft the curriculum with job skills in mind. Cummins, with other area manufacturers, has helped develop courses in engineering manufacturing technology.
Five years ago, the company started offering a school-to-work program that lets students focus on coursework for part of the day while working part-time in Cummins’ research division. Students make a good wage and the skills and experience they gain open the door for employment when a full-time apprenticeship opens up.
Of the 200 students who’ve participated in the program in the last five years, 50 have gone on to full-time positions with Cummins.
“It’s not assembly line work,” said Justin Baker, 18, who is working in Cummins’ high-tech machine lab this summer and hopes the skills he learned in the school-to-work program land him a full-time job. “It’s more creative than that. I learn as I go, and I’m learning every day.”
Steve Mackey, who coordinates the program for Cummins, said it was borne of necessity.
“We’re competing with advanced manufacturers from all over who need high-skilled workers, and it’s getting harder to find them,” said Mackey. “We decided we needed to grow some of our own.”
But there are hurdles to creating viable vocational programs. Some are logistical, like liability concerns that prevent teenagers under 18 from working in manufacturing plants.
Some barriers are financial. “It’s expensive for schools to set up high-tech machine shops,” said Mackey.
Some involve the way schools are measured by the state. Indiana’s school rating system, which can affect funding and teacher salaries, is based in part on scores on standardized tests that measure students’ college readiness.
And some involve the perception that comes with vocational education. “There’s still some stigma associated with advanced manufacturing work,” said Eco15 spokeswoman Stephanie Weber. “Some students still see it a last resort.”
The potential for a good job helps: In Indiana’s manufacturing industry, which has an average wage of $44,000 a year, there are currently 4,500 jobs unfilled.
TIED TO GROWTH INDUSTRIES
Success creating a vocational program in Greensburg is one thing. Replicating it statewide requires some heavy lifting.
Pence’s task force on job training is calling for better alignment between career training and the industries projected for growth in Indiana. It wants to directly tie money spent on education, training and career development to priority sectors of the state economy — advanced manufacturing, agribusiness, energy, information technology, life science and health care, logistics, and defense.
Within three years, it wants every high school student to have an opportunity to earn early college credits or a high-quality workforce credential. And it’s recommending that all high schools provide work-based learning opportunities — like those in Columbus and Greensburg.
The approach marks a major shift from just a generation ago, when Hoosiers with only a high school diploma could land good-paying work in a factory or on a farm.
In communities like Greensburg, school leaders say they embrace the change.
“I used to say Greensburg was a blue-collar community that thought it was white collar,” Hunter said. “Back then, people who worked in factories lived in nice houses, drove nice cars and could send their kids to college.”
“I want that same opportunity for our kids growing up here now,” he said. “It’s imperative in small-town Indiana that we provide those opportunities for our kids and people living here. If you don’t, it’s going to dry up and blow away.”