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Recovery pitched as perfect time for vocational schools

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Cabinet members toured the Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School in April.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Cabinet members toured the Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School in April.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Pitching expanded retraining programs as a way to get laid-off employees back to work, vocational education advocates on Monday urged lawmakers to embrace major reforms to the field amid disagreement on Beacon Hill over funding levels designed to broaden education access.

Legislative leaders so far have not embraced Governor Charlie Baker’s proposal to more than quadruple state spending on a career training program, aimed at preparing 20,000 workers for jobs in high-demand trades.

With debate on the Senate budget set to begin next week, the Alliance for Vocational Technical Education on Monday called on lawmakers to back a Senator Patricia Jehlen budget amendment that would bump funding for the Career Technical Initiative to a level in line with Baker’s goal.

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That money could help the program expand its efforts to offer retraining and career advancement, in particular for adults who will be seeking changes in their life paths in the wake of COVID-19, according to Lew Finfer, co-director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network.

“There’s about 300,000 people who lost their jobs during the pandemic,” Finfer said at an advocacy event hosted by AVTE. “Those jobs in areas like hospitality, tourism, restaurants, health care and even in manufacturing are not coming back, so people need retraining for the many jobs that are still available if you have the training.”

Vocational and technical schools across Massachusetts offer students and adult learners training in a range of skilled trades fields, connecting them to careers as mechanics, carpenters, manufacturers, tool and die makers, electricians, culinary professionals, and more.

The CTI program launched in January 2020, shortly before the pandemic hit, with a goal of training 20,000 new workers over a four-year period. It offers education in three different shifts over the day: traditional daytime classes for vocational students, afternoon programming for students who are enrolled in academic high schools, and evening courses for adults looking to change careers or retrain in a new field.

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Baker and the Legislature agreed to fund it at $4 million in fiscal year 2021. For FY22, the governor is pushing to increase the amount to $16.9 million total — $15.3 million of which would be administered through the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development and $1.5 million through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education — to help those who lost work during the recession “pivot” into areas with robust demand.

The House did not go along with Baker’s proposal. While Labor and Workforce Development Committee Co-chair Representative Josh Cutler proposed a budget amendment bringing the House’s CTI spending in line with Baker, leaders did not include it in a mega-amendment and stuck to a $4 million allocation for FY22.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee’s budget, on tap for debate starting next week, offers more funding for the program at $6 million, but that still falls short of Baker’s idea that has the full support from AVTE.

Advocates on Monday urged senators to back an amendment from Jehlen, Cutler’s co-chair on the Labor Committee, that would bump up CTI funding through EOLWD to the same $15.3 million Baker sought.

“With the economy reopening, people need access to the best job training available,” Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, said in a statement to the News Service on Monday. “The Career Technical Initiative allows workers to be properly trained for some of the most in demand trades. We appreciate that the Senate budget for this program was higher than the House, but we want to make sure that we meet this growing demand. This past year has shown that we must invest in our workers and offer the resources necessary to succeed. Increasing funding for these programs is a way to do so.”

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While they want to see a sizable increase in the Career Technical Institutes program, advocates said Monday they are happy that both the House and the Senate budgets would boost funding for dual enrollment programs from $1.5 million to $2.5 million.

Many skilled trades employers report that they need more workers, but Finfer said Monday that about 3,200 Massachusetts students — a large portion of whom reside in so-called “Gateway Cities — remain stuck on waitlists to get into vocational schools where they could gain qualifications for those jobs.

Lawmakers and activists have pressed for years for additional investment in the state’s vocational technical infrastructure.

Education Committee Co-chair Senator Jason Lewis said during Monday’s event that he believes Massachusetts residents have a “growing awareness” about the value that vocational and technical education offers.

“It’s viewed in a very different light today than it may have been, I would say unfairly, in the past,” Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, said. “But of course, as has also been said, we have a lot more work to do because we still have many students who are not being afforded the opportunities that they need and deserve in order to thrive in high school and to have successful and productive careers.”

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Lewis said his committee “will prioritize” vocational and technical education this session. He co-authored a bill (H 652 / S 357) supporters highlighted Monday that would create a new Office of Career Education within the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and a commission to study funding options for career technical programs.

The office would be tasked with boosting vocational and technical education in Massachusetts, including through dual-enrollment programs, and corresponding with industry leaders to calibrate programs in response to workforce needs.

AVTE backed that bill Monday as well as a larger omnibus package (H 666 / S 348) that includes similar reforms and also authorizes $3 billion in bonding to expand career technical education in Massachusetts, increases local levy limits to pay for regional vocational school debt, and allows buildings to be leased for school programs for up to 50 years.

Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow, one of the larger bill’s main sponsors, said Massachusetts has “an immense amount of untapped potential” in trades fields. As the state moves past the COVID-19 pandemic, Lesser said health care, advanced manufacturing, and construction are poised for high demand.

“These are very important fields that are growing fast, that pay well, and we need capacity at our schools,” Lesser said. “It kills me that in the two voc schools that I represent and a large collaborative voc-ed program, they often need to turn students away because they don’t have the teaching staff, they don’t have equipment, they don’t have the physical space to give every child the opportunity for this type of education and this type of career advancement.”

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