By Anju Miura
BU News Service
BOSTON – A proposal from Gov. Charlie Baker to close a gap in skilled technical workers is a good start but needs funding, recruitment and capacity if it is to succeed, according to a local lawmaker and school administrators.
In its fiscal 2021 budget proposal submitted last month, the Baker administration proposed approximately $15 million to launch Career Technical Initiative, a multi-year investment to train an additional 20,000 skilled workers over the next four years by offering three teaching shifts a day at local vocational schools.
Aligned with the executive offices of education, economic development, housing, and labor and workforce development, Baker’s Workforce Skills Cabinet aims to provide career training opportunities not only for students enrolled in vocational schools but also for traditional high school students and adults.
“I like the concept certainly because I know that we definitely could use more skilled workers, and I think this concept would certainly address that issue,” said Rep. Jeffrey Roy, D-Franklin.
His priorities include education, so Roy said providing equal access to higher education opportunities leads to the state’s economic growth, and he aims to increase the number of businesses in Franklin.
Although Massachusetts had an unemployment rate at 2.8% in December, lower than the national average, the state has experienced a skilled worker shortage in trade and construction industries, according to the Baker press release announcing the initiative.
“As I do a deep dive and consider what he has proposed, I do have several questions,” said Roy, adding he has started discussing funding sources with the governor’s office for the budget for the fiscal year that begins in July.
Baker’s FY21 budget did include an additional $355 million as part of the Student Opportunity Act he signed into law last year. That long-debated education reform law aims to increase investments in local school districts and ensure equal access to education, including increased funding for Chapter 70 education aid.
However, Roy is apprehensive about a possible decrease in Chapter 70 aid to fund career technical initiative. As many other school districts, Franklin underwent staffing cuts in public schools last spring due to a budget crunch and charter school expansion.
“The school district has to pay for it. I think it would be problematic,” said Roy.
Local vocational schools support the initiative as a new approach to coping with the skilled labor shortage, motivated to provide career training programs to deal with the state’s skilled labor shortage and skills gap.
“We’re excited to learn more about the specifics of the funding, opportunities and how community members may be able to benefit,” said Keefe Regional Technical School Superintendent-Director Jonathan Evans.
Evans said the school’s 800-student day program is the right size, so he would like to put any additional resources into the evening school program targeting adults.
However, he said the school expects to face hard times in recruiting qualified instructors for additional shifts.
In addition to the regular school hours from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., the initiative would offer after-school programs for students enrolled in traditional high schools from 2 to 5 p.m. and night training programs for adults from 5 to 9 p.m.
Keefe, like many vocational schools, currently offers night programs for adults, but they project the current instructors cannot cover all the three teaching shifts, based on the teaching load for daytime instructors.
“I can’t imagine we’re going to hire them only for 15 hours or 20 hours a week,” said Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School Principal Mark Hollick. “I don’t know if they would be willing to put in the time.”
Recruiting highly qualified teachers for only the second or third shift can be a challenge without degrading the quality of education and career training, said Hollick.
Chapter 74 of Massachusetts General Laws requires licensed instructors for the second shift, the same as current daytime programs, as opposed to certificate programs at night, which do not require a license for instructors.
Tri-County Regional Vocational Technical School Superintendent-Director Stephen Dockray said the school has struggled to run night programs for adults due to a small number of faculty members and adult students.
“It’s been difficult to get teachers, and honestly, it’s been difficult to get a lot of students to run a night program,” said Dockray. He added that since the initiative will provide the state funding to help adults pay for training programs, it would help solve the issue by increasing the adult student enrollment.
Unlike the Greater Lawrence Technical School in Andover, where many students are on a wait list, vocational schools serving students in the MetroWest and Milford areas such as Keefe, Assabet Valley and Tri-County do not have wait lists. Some schools are concerned about attracting students for the second shift, which is intended to provide training for traditional high school students.
“You have to have a cohort of kids who are interested in those particular fields,” said Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School Superintendent-Director Ernest Houle.
He said students who study at traditional high schools in the area, such as Marlborough High School and Hudson High School, would find it difficult to dedicate time to part-time jobs and after-school activities if they want to get career and technical education after school.
Besides recruiting qualified teachers and filling the seats on the afternoon shift, Houle said a capacity issue would arise if student enrollment increases.
Funded by Massachusetts School Building Authority and seven participating communities, Assabet Valley completed a $62.4 million renovation in 2015, but the project did not allow the school to expand its campus, he said.
“It’s all relative in nature,” Houle said. “We’re willing to help out and do our part if we’ve got interested students, the ability to have qualified teachers, and the funding to be able to make it happen.”
This article was originally published in the Metrowest Daily News.