March 6, 2009 – Northwest Texas
A shift in education goals could put more Texans to work
By Susan Combs
Vernon College, which serves students in Vernon, Wichita Falls and at Sheppard Air Force Base, started the current school year with a record enrollment of 2,960 for all locations, more than 5 percent higher than the previous school year.
Students have attended Vernon College since 1972, receiving job training in health and technical fields and laying an educational groundwork to transfer to four-year colleges and universities.
In times of economic uncertainty, Texas must be careful not to overlook the needs of Vernon College and other Texas community and technical colleges. These schools augment the earning potential of individual students by providing training for high-paying, in-demand jobs. The schools also support the economies of entire regions by tackling community-specific work force needs.
Our state as a whole stands to reap significant economic rewards if we shift some of our education policies from the traditional emphasis on four-year colleges and direct more attention, money and research toward work force training opportunities offered by community and technical colleges.
Community and technical college graduates add fuel to Texas’ economic engine and provide skills that keep our cities moving, building and thriving. In 2007, more than 80 percent of all Texas jobs did not require a bachelor’s degree. Neither did nearly 44 percent of the jobs paying wages above the state average. The U.S. Department of Education estimates about 80 percent of the fastest growing occupations in the near future will require some postsecondary training, but not a bachelor’s degree.
In my office’s recent Texas Works report, we detail strategies for developing our work force in ways that dovetail with future labor needs. One way to do that is to ensure high school students have multiple pathways to graduation by allowing greater flexibility in Texas graduation requirements and grade point average calculation standards, which can otherwise prevent or discourage high school students from enrolling in career and technology courses.
In addition to policy changes, we need to strengthen Texas’ work force. Establishing a $25 million fund to support community and technical colleges offering career-technical education (CTE) will be invaluable to schools facing startup costs associated with purchasing equipment and outfitting state-of-the-art training facilities.
Sometimes a cash infusion can have huge effects for a school, creating opportunities for students and enriching communities. In October 2008, the American Association of Community Colleges selected Western Texas College in Snyder to participate in the Wal-Mart Workforce and Economic Opportunity Initiative. As part of the program, the school receives an $86,000 grant to partner with its local community to foster work force development and economic prosperity.
Dr. Mike Dreith, Western Texas College president, said, “Being a part of the initiative will increase the college’s leadership capacity in response to labor market needs, improve the college’s collaboration within the business and economic development communities and strengthen its connections with secondary school leaders.”
Without an adequate supply of skilled workers, Texas’ ability to attract and retain new businesses will suffer. We also jeopardize the future financial well being of many young Texans by focusing on only one “ideal” route beyond high school. By bolstering our state’s sometimes overlooked educational assets, Texas can stand ready to greet future work force developments not as challenges, but as opportunities.
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs recently released Texas Works , an in-depth study of the emerging gap between the demand for skilled workers and the state’s ability to supply them. The report is available online at www.window.state.tx.us/specialrpt/workforce/.