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Officials urge vocational program push

Vocational training is waiting and ready to produce competent future employees.

The problem is getting students into those programs.

"We have great vo-tech 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 vocational training with a legislative work group on Wednesday.

House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, recently created the work group to study 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 inaugural speech last week.

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, the vast majority of students in vocational training programs are not placed there because they show an aptitude or 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 said of school administrators. 

Clay agreed. Many 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 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 to pursue that trade, the student should earn a math credit, she argued.

That doesn't mean students shouldn't pursue education after successfully completing a vocational program, Clay said. He envisions business and education relationships allowing vocational graduates to work for companies and then pursue two-year degrees that further enhanced their qualifications.

A student eventually could pursue a four-year degree if he or she wanted to continue with company management. Such relationships could be an avenue for professional growth that benefitted 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 vocational courses, D'Antoni said the department wants to shift career and technical training centers to simulated job environments. 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 department has applied for a grant through the Benedum Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based philanthropic organization, in order to aid that shift. She is seeking $130,000 over three-years, and is optimistic the department will receive the funds. The department should know whether it was awarded the grant by March. 

Basic skills are a basic problem, said 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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