Governor Charlie Baker hit the Mass. Pike on Wednesday, bound for Worcester, as did Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito and a third of Baker’s Cabinet. They had HVAC installations on their minds.
No, they were not replacing ductwork at some state office building. Instead, they sought nothing less ambitious than a new model for growing the state’s blue-collar workforce.
Their destination: Worcester Technical High School. There, adult students are getting certified in HVAC skills in the evenings through a partnership with Quinsigamond Community College.
It’s a scenario that Baker and his team want to replicate across the state at dozens of vocational-technical high schools, to address a pressing need for carpenters, electricians, machinists, and all the other trade jobs that employers say can be hard to fill.
Baker just needs the Legislature to go along, and give him the money he needs. Baker unveiled his plan, dubbed the Career Technical Initiative, during his state-of-the-state speech last month. And he’s been stumping for it ever since: at Greater Lawrence Technical School, at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, at Worcester Tech.
The governor wants these schools to run three shifts of classes, similar in concept to how manufacturers often run shifts on factory floors. In this case, the first shift would be the regular school day, the second would consist of afterschool programs for teens from other high schools, and the third would be sessions for adults, like the ones in Worcester and Lawrence. (See also: a GE-subsidized effort taking shape on the North Shore.)
This initiative, in its first year, would cost $15 million, for at least a dozen schools. Baker has asked the Legislature for $4 million for tuition and performance payments for the adult learners, $2 million for marketing, and $1 million for teacher recruitment and development. He also wants a $1 million budget increase, to $1.5 million, for planning grants. He already has $5 million in bond money authorized for equipment purchases, and hopes to find another $1.5 million through the private sector and other corners of state government.
All told, it seems like short money for a state budget that could top $45 billion — especially if this can help several thousand teens and adults a year gain new skills, as the administration proclaims.
This effort is the latest outgrowth of the Workforce Skills Cabinet, which Baker assembled five years ago to bring his economic development, labor, and education secretaries together to brainstorm ways to address employers’ needs.
Baker said he regularly hears from employers across the state who struggle to find enough skilled workers, often slowing their growth as a result. It is, as they say, a good problem to have. But how to solve it? The Baker administration has pumped millions into vo-tech school equipment already. State officials realize these schools are an underutilized resource after hours — even as more than 3,000 kids remain on waiting lists for regular enrollment.
The nature of manufacturing has changed dramatically over the years, Baker said, to include more high-tech, demanding higher skills. Think software, as well as hardware. As with Worcester Tech, Greater Lawrence has a headstart on this three-shift system. Baker said he was struck by the good-paying jobs — $30 an hour, or more — that await the high schoolers who graduate from the Lawrence program.
So what does the Legislature think? Baker said he’s had preliminary discussions, and some positive feedback. But it’s too soon to know for sure. The House and Senate will roll out their own versions of the budget in the coming months. Baker said legislative leaders understand the opportunity. But the more success stories he can show them, the better.
Senator Eric Lesser, who cochairs the economic development committee, is among the lawmakers who will likely be on board. Think of the increased buying power, he said, and the impact that could have on the economy, if more people can obtain high-tech skills. (Financial help for the adult learners, Lesser said, could be crucial.) As a lawmaker from Western Mass., Lesser is particularly intrigued by the ways this initiative could stoke economies across the state, not just in red-hot Greater Boston.
Business leaders also seem hopeful. Suffolk chief John Fish, whose construction company is the largest in the state, said workers in his industry increasingly need to be tech savvy, as virtual reality, AI, and big data play bigger roles. And Michael Tamasi, who runs the 75-person AccuRounds precision manufacturing plant in Avon, said he could probably fill another five jobs on his night shift if he can only find people with the right skills. The talent pipeline is drying up, particularly as a wave of baby boomers retire.
Baker’s solution — afterschool and night classes at vo-tech schools — may sound mundane, boring even. But for many blue-collar employers across the state, it could be a game changer, coming at just the right time.