Gov't Pushes Job Training As Technical Programs Close – Part One

by Taras Berezowsky on

This is Part One of a two-part series. Read Part Two here.

How to explain the gap between federal job retraining initiatives and low enrollment at a growing number of industrial training programs? Is there a correlation? What are the factors at work?

We’re hearing reports of factory jobs in the manufacturing sector being added as the economy continues its slow rebound. But at the same time, companies are unable to match up open positions with workers’ existing skill sets. What happens when nursing programs are started and funded in an area where predominantly blue-collar factory workers live? And how much money will those workers have to put in or borrow to switch careers to where the jobs are, or will be?

The Obama administration has recently announced a new job retraining initiative, which looks to specifically pair training schools (and their students’ curricula) with industrial companies in all 50 states, ultimately hoping to make job placement a firmer guarantee.

The initiative may be a response in part to the tide of bad press that “for-profit colleges have been receiving. Schools, such as those owned by Apollo Group and Kaplan, and their executives have been under fire for boosting their bottom lines while increasing numbers of graduates have been defaulting on their federal loans. (Roughly 90 percent of for-profit schools are federally funded, according to reports.)

But “Skills for America’s Future, as the initiative is called, may not work as well in practice as intended in theory. MetalMiner spoke with Steve Kay, principal of the William D. Ford Career-Technical Center outside Detroit. He said that due to abysmal enrollment numbers in their computer-aided machining (CAM) program, the school had to shut down the program entirely and auction off its training equipment. To replace it, they began an Emergency Medical Technician program.

Cultural perception, rather than federal funding or rule-making, may be playing a greater role. “Not only are the jobs that used to pay $28 an hour now paying only $12-$14, put parents are actively encouraging their students to do something else, Kay said.

He went on to explain that parents who grew up working in such historically manufacturing-heavy areas as Detroit are now seeing those industrial models crumbling before their eyes. This influences them to coach their kids to pursue computer programming or design, he said.

William D. Ford Career-Technical Center isn’t the only school to auction its machining equipment. Dennis Hoff, president of Hoff-Hilk Auctions in Minneapolis, has presided over five school auctions over the past three years, including St. Paul College.

Federal policy and the technical training programs may be at odds in another way. In one example, officials, while pushing for alternative energy investment, are decrying the fact that certain training programs (think the DeVrys and University of Phoenixs’ of the world) are not offering sufficient job placement for students to repay their debt. Meanwhile, advocates for alternative vocational tracks may contend that for some of these industries, such as wind energy or biofuel production, many jobs simply haven’t been invented yet. Essentially, students are enrolling in programs to prepare them not for existing fields, but for ones they will eventually pioneer. Determining exactly which skills to teach under this approach has been just as difficult, said Fred Dedrick, executive director of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, in a National Journal article. Ultimately, what good is a student’s vocational certificate if there’s no job to match on the other side of the rainbow? Who’s to blame?

This argument has yet to fully play out. As we follow the industrial jobs initiative, we’ll continue talking to those teaching and learning the trades in this current economic climate. Paradoxically, as unemployment levels remain high, industrial companies struggle to fill open positions.

In the next post, we’ll explore the welding sector and why there appears to be a nationwide welder shortage even with $50,000 starting salaries.

–Taras Berezowsky

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