Yes, the “help wanted” signs are appearing in shop windows again, but the world of work continues to shift under our feet. Some jobs lost during the pandemic won’t be coming back, but the people who filled those jobs still need to make a living, support families, and move on with their lives.
One program with the potential for retraining those workers and at the same time adding more slots to already oversubscribed vocational schools around the state now hangs by a thin legislative thread. For some pretty short money ($16.9 million in a $47.6 billion budget), it could put 20,000 people back to work and make a dent in that vocational education waiting list of some 3,200 young people clamoring for job skills.
“There’s always a good case to be made for job training, but in this atmosphere it’s critical,” said Lew Finfer, codirector of the Massachusetts Communities Network. “Several hundred thousand of those people who lost their jobs during the pandemic won’t be able to go back to work.”
Finfer’s group is part of a coalition supporting the Career Technical Initiative, which was launched by the Baker administration in January 2020, just prior to the tsunami of job losses that would follow.
The initiative, funded that year with $4 million, has a three-pronged approach to job training, turning many of the state’s vocational-technical high schools into three-shift operations. It would expand the number of programs and seats for day students, provide after-school programs for students attending traditional high schools who are looking for practical job skills, and open or expand evening programs for adults looking for retraining or new career options.
Those first grants funded programs for automotive service and HVAC technicians, plumbers, and construction craft positions at Northern Essex Agricultural and Technical School. Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School got a grant to expand its programs in welding and computer-assisted manufacturing.
The schools are required to pair with local partners, and the programs are often specific to the needs of those regions, like marine trades for a coastal community or robotics for a nearby company in need of workers.
Voc-tech schools, especially in the state’s Gateway Cities, have become increasingly competitive — so much so that the students who could benefit most are often the very students who never make the cut for admission. State education officials have acknowledged those inequities and are attempting to craft new guidelines for the admissions process. The state Board of Education is expected to finalize those next month.
But the real solution is more opportunity — for students and now for adults who are unemployed or underemployed. Fully funding CTI would do both.
Baker put money for the expanded program in his budget — $15.3 million to be administered through the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development and $1.5 million through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
In crafting its version of the budget, the House went its own way, limiting the initiative to $4 million but then putting in $10 million for an Offshore Wind Energy Career Training initiative. That would be a welcome boost for one emerging industry but wouldn’t capture the broad range of jobs for which the state should be preparing its workforce.
The Senate budget, due to be debated next week, upped the line item from $4 million to $6 million. But an amendment filed by Senator Patricia Jehlen would increase the levels to Baker’s original proposal. It is, of course, one of about a thousand amendments filed by hopeful senators, many no doubt on behalf of worthy causes (and plenty of not-so-worthy as well). But when a Republican governor and a Somerville Democrat find common ground — backed by an equally diverse group of advocates — it provides further evidence that this particular program and the good it has done have a worth that transcends politics.
It’s already made a difference for Abel Czarlinsky, 40, a welding student in the CTI program at Whittier Tech, who has been a mechanic “on and off” for the past 15 years but is “looking forward to the next chapter” in his life. And it is making a difference in the life of Anesa Oliveira, currently working for DoorDash, but enrolled in a carpentry pre-apprenticeship program at Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School. Both spoke at a briefing Monday hosted by the Alliance for Vocational Technical Education.
They were among the first to be part of a program that truly deserves expansion. Timing sometimes is everything. Right now tens of thousands of people need jobs, and industries looking to bounce back from the pandemic need skilled workers. A program that is built on matching one with the other — and changing futures — can serve them all. This is one the Senate can and should save and expand.
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