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By Paul Bradley  /  
2008 February 25 - 12:00 am

Special Report: Caught in the Middle (Technical Schools)

They are called “middle-skills jobs,” positions requiring more than a high school education, but less than a bachelor’s degree.

And according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 45 percent of all jobs created over the next several years will be “middle skills” occupations – jobs like electronics technicians, medical assistants and nursing aides, hotel managers, welders, pipe fitters and air conditioning mechanics. See jobs of the future.

Federal officials project that the number of health-care jobs demanding less than a baccalaureate degree will rise by up to 1.5 million by 2014. Employment in skilled construction crafts requiring both classroom training and on-the-job experience will grow by 15 percent by 2014 and provide the economy with 4.6 million jobs.

Wages, too, are on the rise for middle-skills jobs. Pay for radiological technicians, for example, jumped 23 percent between 1997 and 2005, according to a report by The Workforce Alliance, a Washington-based coalition of unions, business leaders, community colleges and other organizations that lobbies for federal technical education policies. Pay for electricians jumped by 18 percent. That compares to a 5 percent increase for the average American worker, according to a November 1997 Workforce Alliance report.

Those kinds of statistics create both an opportunity and a dilemma for technical colleges, those institutions specializing in quick technical and career training rather than traditional liberal arts education.

Well-Positioned

Education leaders say these institutions are well-positioned to  fill the void by offering training that responds to the needs of local economies.

Technical education is a well-established American institution. About 15 million students are now enrolled in secondary and post-secondary career and technical education programs, according to the Association of Career and Technical Education. Some 9,400 postsecondary institutions offer technical programs, including community colleges, technical institutes, skill centers and other public and private two- and four-year colleges, according to ACTE statistics.

Yet many technical colleges feel underappreciated and unloved. Not only are they being squeezed by the movement to push more students toward four-year liberal arts degrees, they also feel like they’re considered by some to be little more than trade schools — the poor country cousins to their comprehensive community college relations.

Those beliefs were only underscored when advocates of technical education got a glimpse of the Bush administration budget for the 2009 fiscal year. The spending blueprint eliminated all funding for the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Training, (see related story, pg. 9) one of the primary sources of funding for technical training. It’s the third time in the past four years that Bush has recommended giving Perkins the axe.

If Congress accepts the administration’s proposal — an unlikely prospect, say education leaders – it would represent a cut of $1.3 billion for technical training programs.

“At a time when we’re discussing the need for economic stimulus to avoid a recession, we should be investing in programs that put Americans into many high-skill, high wage jobs that are available,” says Rich Katt, president of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium. “Instead we stand in disbelief that President Bush has decided once again to eliminate career technical education, one of our nation’s leading workforce and economic development programs.”

Lee Rasch, president of Western Technical College in Wisconsin, says the Perkins cut would mean a loss of $1 million to his institution. That’s bad enough, but the proposal also sends a larger, troubling message about the value of technical education, he says.

“You have to wonder whether it will lead to an erosion of support for technical education,” he says. “It certainly means that it is making our case more difficult. It feeds a perception that technical education is not valued.”

The potential problem is more than just political, Rasch says.

“Many of the occupations of the next generation really have not yet fully emerged,” he says. “There is a risk that we can accelerate an economic downturn if we can’t respond quickly to the needs of the workforce.”

Building a Better Base

Colleges themselves have often signaled ambivalence about the value of technical education. Some have dropped the word “technical” from their names. Others have treated technical education as an add-on to their traditional liberal arts offerings.

Wisconsin has been one state that has mostly resisted scrapping its technical colleges and transforming them into comprehensive community colleges. Of the state’s 16 technical colleges, only four offer liberal arts degrees. The fact that Wisconsin retains the word “technical” in its college names is no accident, Rasch says.

“There is a significant amount of pride in our technical colleges,” he says. “We believe that if you want to strengthen the economy, you have to build a better base, and that is technical training.”

Still, Rasch and other education leaders are mindful that the occupations of the future will require more than merely hands-on training. They also require a rigorous academic program – something technical education advocates say are being integrated into their programs.

Gerald Lamkin, president emeritus of Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College, puts it this way: “In the 1970s, vocational training was the right thing to do. Now, it’s different. You might have a guy who can run a machine, but what does he know about robotics? He can read a blueprint, but what does he know about math?”

The roots of Ivy Tech are firmly planted in technical instruction. Even its name is derived from its mission. It was founded in 1963 as the Indiana Vocational Technical College and was called “IV Tech” and later formalized into its current moniker. The college did not add “community college” to its name until 2005, when it merged with Vincennes University which, despite its name, was the state’s only comprehensive community college

And while Ivy Tech offers comprehensive education to its 111,000 students on its 23 campuses, the legislation creating the colleges makes its priorities clear:

“Ivy Tech shall meet the needs of state and local officials, employers, and labor organizations by designing and delivering educational training courses and programs,” it says. “The primary objective of this effort shall be to provide economic and workforce development support to the state’s employers and communities, by meeting their needs for better educated and trained, more productive, and more competitive employers and citizens.”

Technical training is a role that Ivy Tech is happy to fill as its primary mission, Lamkin says. He finds it ironic that many comprehensive community colleges are now adding the kind if technical education programs that have always been Ivy Tech’s bread-and-butter.

“Most community colleges want to be a two-year or a four-year institution,” he says. “They don’t want to do that dirty, nasty stuff of technical training. But we never shied away from that. I don’t think we’ll ever become a traditional community college.”

Combining the Two

Joe D. May is president of the nation’s newest technical and community college system, created in Louisiana in 1999. He is a believer in technical training, but doesn’t think that technical education and comprehensive liberal arts instruction must be mutually exclusive.

“It’s a false premise,” he says. “You have to combine the two. The overarching purpose of our system is workforce preparation. We are trying to educate people who are employable upon graduation, whether that is a certificate or a degree.”

To do that, technical education in Louisiana and elsewhere need more resources, May says. Louisiana faces a nettlesome dichotomy. While many jobs of the future demand training on state-of-the-art computers or in high-tech “clean rooms,” most of the state’s colleges are housed in circa-1970s buildings that are ill-equipped to meet those needs.

“The cost of technical training is going up,” May says. “Many of the buildings we occupy were built as single-purpose buildings. It’s very hard, and very expensive, to retrofit them to meet modern needs.”

May is appealing to the state for more resources to meet the demand for more trained workers in the state. He is pushing for a new funding formula, which would attach extra dollars to special programs and designate the system as the state’s workforce training provider. He is asking for about $130 million for a range of proposals, including a new training fund and $66 million for specialized training centers.

The long-term goal is to provide up-to-date facilities and increase enrollment threefold. The system currently enrolls 52,000 students, a number that needs to jump to 160,000 if the state is to meet its future workforce needs, May says.  

Take a look at CCW's news vaults to see how technology vendors were starting to reach out to community colleges nearly 20 years ago.

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