At least three times in less than a week, I have heard great news for an issue that’s near and dear to my heart – the value of vocational education.
Ironically, all three men speaking up for skilled trades training came from Austin, and at least two of them are in a unique position to do something about it. But for Wise County, the guest speaker at last week’s Decatur Business Appreciation Dinner set off a spark of activity that is sure to meet with success.
For good reason, our public schools have in recent years emphasized the “college track” curriculum for most of our students. Of course, a college education is important for many professional fields. But it is also true that many students prefer to enter the workforce right away or after two years of community college training in skilled trades.
The Decatur speaker, Brian Kelsey of Civic Analytics in Austin, presented some eye-opening statistics about job opportunities and salaries for students with community or technical college advanced training.
How about this – persons in the workforce with an associates degree from an institution like Weatherford College Wise County or Texas State Technical College in Waco can expect a median wage of $61,590. That compares to $34,180 for a high school graduate. In fact, the associates degree compares favorably with the salary of $63,430 for a bachelor’s degree from a four-year university.
Kelsey’s key message was the value of a partnership between public schools, community colleges and economic development officials. He showed statistics that emphasized the value of a trained workforce. For companies interested in moving to an area, a trained workforce ranked No. 4 on a list of factors that influence their location decision. First was highway accessibility, second was labor cost and third was proximity to major markets.
Interestingly, state and local incentives ranked seventh on the list and tax exemptions ranked ninth.
The call for a cooperative effort between higher education and economic development sparked action from Duane Durrett, dean of Weatherford College Wise County, and Associate Dean Matt Joiner, who was at the dinner and heard Kelsey.
In less than a week, Durrett and Joiner had set up a meeting with William Myers and Jody Adams, economic development directors of Bridgeport and Decatur, to map out a plan for training students to enter the Wise County workforce.
They plan a survey of high school students to determine what fields might interest them so that the college can provide professional training in those fields. There’s probably no need for Duane and Matt to survey the business community – just looking through the classified section of today’s Wise County Messenger will give them a perfect idea of the many job opportunities available today.
Earlier this week, I attended a Texas Press Association legislative conference in Austin and had the opportunity to hear Texas House Speaker Joe Strauss and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst discuss the current legislative session, and both men promised education reforms that will value the traditional four year-college track in high schools but also put in place a program that places equal value on vocational and technical education.
“I can assure you that the Senate is very serious about this issue,” Dewhurst said in response to a question from a newspaper publisher in the Rio Grande valley who said his area was suffering from the lack of a skilled labor force.
The opportunities for training beyond high school, but short of a four-year degree, are abundant. A friend’s son was part of a tractor restoration team that won state and national honors at Decatur High School. That interest provided the basics, but now the young man is at a technical college where he is learning important lessons about tractor hydraulics, heating and air conditioning systems.
When he graduates in a few months, how long do you think it’s going to take him to find a job at a John Deere, New Holland or Kubota dealership? I would guess about 15 minutes.
There is a reason that Decatur High School agriculture teacher Jim Allsup was recently honored as an outstanding educator – he can inspire young people who are interested in agriculture or an agriculture-related field. Good teachers like that are everywhere in our school systems, and they have earned and deserve our respect and honor.
There is one great challenge for high school administrators and counselors that must be met. Students interested in a vocational or technical career must not feel that they are somehow “second-class” students because they do not choose a college-degree plan.
If we can meet that challenge, Decatur and Bridgeport will be well on the way to being able to assure businesses that come to Wise County that we can meet and exceed their requirements for a trained workforce.
When that happens, our economic future will be bright indeed.
Roy Eaton is publisher of the Wise County Messenger.