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W.Va. education leaders tout vocational training

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Vocational training is waiting and ready to produce competent future employees.

It's getting students into those programs that's the problem.

"We have great votech programs out there. We don't have students for those programs," said Gary Clay, representing the West Virginia Manufacturers Association.

Clay and Kathy D'Antoni, assistant state superintendent for career and technical education at the state Department of Education, discussed their ideas about the future of vocational training Wednesday with a legislative work group.

House Speaker Rich Thompson, D-Wayne, recently created the work group to research a statewide audit of the education system and speak with stakeholders about its recommendations. The audit recommends revamping the state's vocational system, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin explicitly addressed that training during his speech at his inauguration ceremony.

Clay and D'Antoni said improving the system starts at a very basic level: change the perception that vocational training is for losers.

Right now, administrators don't put the vast majority of student in vocational training programs in the classes because they show an aptitude or an interest in a particular trade, D'Antoni said.

"The majority of them are put there because they don't know what else to do with them," D'Antoni told the work group.

Clay agreed. Many times students who are sent to the programs may have struggled in a traditional academic setting, leading other kids to label them as losers, he said. The business and education communities need to show that trained professionals leaving these programs often times make more money than students right out of college. 

A great way to entice students to join the programs is the integration of core curriculum within vocational training. When students feel a topic is more relevant, they're more engaged in the subject matter, D'Antoni said. If a student is studying a particular trade that requires math, and he or she shows proficiency in the math skills required in order to pursue that trade, why shouldn't that student earn a math credit, she argued.

That doesn't mean these students shouldn't pursue advanced educational training after successfully completing a vocational program, Clay said. He envisions a business and education relationship where vocational graduates work for a company, then pursue a two-year degree that further enhances that students qualifications.

Eventually, that student could pursue a four-year degree if he or she wants to continue with company management. It provides an avenue for professional growth that benefits both students and businesses, Clay said.

"I'd much rather have somebody that's grown up through the grassroots all the way through, learning our business," Clay said.

To better engage students in these courses, D'Antoni said the department is looking to shift career and technical training centers to a simulated job environment. Students would apply and interview for positions, with training administered in a manner typically found in the workplace. This delivers more than technical education, she said.

"One of the conversations I've had with business administrators is, it's not so much that the students don't contain the skill set, they don't understand the process of business," D'Antoni said.

"Work ethic, showing up on time, all the things that make business successful," she continued.

D'Antoni said the deparment has applied for a grant through Pittsburgh-based philanthropic organization Benedum Foundation. D'Antoni said she is optimistic the department would receive the grant, but did not mention the total grant amount.

Basic skills are a basic problem, agrees Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

He and his staff presented the work group with a survey of the chambers' 5,000 members; the roughly 15 percent of members who responded said they had a tough time finding potential employees with very basic skill sets.

"Our members are saying we need to be able to find people who have basic reading and comprehension skills, who can do basic math and who can pass a drug test," Roberts said.

About 70 percent of the West Virginia economy still relies on jobs traditionally obtained through advanced educational training, Roberts said. However, he agreed there is a need for better training in general for West Virginia students, and hopes legislators are able to enact change during the upcoming session.

The session begins Feb. 13.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or Follow him at Dave_Boucher1.        


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