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  ·   By Maureen Downey, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution   ·  Link to Article

If they aren’t going to college or job training, what are Georgia’s high school grads doing?

I attended a forum last week that debated vocational education, now known as career and technology education or CTE. Like middle school, career tech is one of those K-12 weak spots that provokes a lot of discussion but seemingly resists transformation.

With middle school, I contend the model itself is flawed. But with vo-tech, I believe it’s more a perception issue. Despite dressing up the name of the program, many parents still believe career tech is not what the smart kids do, and they’re reluctant to see their children in the program.

However, there is rising skepticism of the “college for all” mantra. Georgia is among the states investing in career-technical options for kids and encouraging high school graduates to enroll in post-secondary training to obtain technical certificates. (Georgia adds an A for agriculture so we go with CTAE)

A recent Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce report showed 30 million jobs in the U.S. that pay well– median salary of $55,000 — without a bachelor’s degree. But the jobs do require some training after high school.

According to Good Jobs That Pay Without a BA:

Although the economy has shifted, workers without a B.A. still comprise 64 percent of all workers. Many believe good jobs for workers without a B.A. no longer exist in this new environment. “Even though there have been big losses, manufacturing still provides the largest number of good jobs,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center and lead author of the report.

While the good jobs of the manufacturing era only required a high school diploma or less, new good jobs tend to require at least some postsecondary education and training. The growth of good jobs has been greatest for workers with an Associate’s degree. Americans with only high school diplomas still have the largest share of good jobs (11.6 million), but that share continues to decline. Workers with some college have 9.3 million good jobs, those with Associate’s degrees have 7.6 million good jobs, and high school dropouts only have 1.7 million.

Even though jobs exist for non college-bound students, the average number of career-technical credits high school students earn in this country has dropped. In 2013-14, about 326,000 Georgia high school students participated in career-technical classes, only an increase of 1,300 over six years earlier.

As a vice chairman for the Holder Construction Company, Michael Kenig is concerned about attracting and keeping workers. He was among the panelists discussing career tech last week at a Georgia Partnership For Excellence in Education forum on the critical talent shortage in Georgia.

As someone long involved in skills development, Kenig made interesting points during the panel and in a follow-up conversation we had. While Georgia CTAE students graduate high school at impressive rates, too few of them pursue training programs after high school that would give them needed industry credentials and skills, said Kenig.

He pointed to statistics from Georgia’s 2010 high school graduation class. As of 2015, 22 percent of the class had a four-year degree or beyond, he said. That left 78 percent without a four-year degree. Seven percent of them had an associate degree or a credential, while 18 percent were still enrolled in school.

And the others? “When you break down that 78 percent, 53 percent didn’t have anything beyond high school — no postsecondary credential, no degree, no associate degree,” Kenig said.

“We are doing plenty for that 22 percent,” said Kenig. “What are we doing for the 78 percent, and more importantly, what are we doing for that 53 percent that got nothing? The CTAE system is the best option we have, but most students do not continue in the CTAE pathways after high school.”

As evidence, Kenig noted the entry age in the construction field is mid-to-late 20s. “Kids are losing 10 years of their lives doing who knows what before they circle around and think this is something I would love to do,” he said.

Among the questions we need to answer:

•How do we get those kids to consider construction or other fields with decent earning potential at age 18 rather than age 28?

•Why aren’t high school students in career pathways continuing their training after graduation so they can earn industry credentials?

•Why are they taking detours that lead to critical gaps in their earning power?

•Is there a disconnect between the K-12 system and Georgia’s technical colleges? Do silos still exist?

Kenig understands some parents don’t want their kids in construction. And he has a response to those parents: “I don’t want your kids. There are kids who do like working with their hands and do like working outside. I want to make sure these kids see the opportunity before they are 26-years-old.”

He also realizes some 18-year-olds don’t want to join the workforce. But some high school grads have to work and want to work, including a high school student who interned with Holder and now has a job waiting for him when he graduates, said Kenig.

“I want the kids to do what is best for them. I am not trying to sell them on construction, but we need to give them opportunities and they can decide what they want to do.”

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