March 6, 2009 – West Texas
A shift in education goals could put more Texans to work
By Susan Combs
Community colleges and technical colleges throughout Texas show resourcefulness and creativity in responding to the educational needs of surrounding communities.
Administrators at Howard College in Big Spring have to develop creative strategies to serve 13 surrounding counties that cover 13,000 square miles and house 13,000 students.
To cover its vast service area, Howard College employs the Virtual College of Texas (VCT), a collaborative of Texas public two-year colleges that shares distance-learning courses among its members. During the 2008 fall semester, 149 Howard College students enrolled in VCT courses, and the school offered 75 courses online to 1,154 enrollees statewide.
West Texas — and the 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 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 January 2008, Odessa College received a $1.7 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to expand its welding program. The grant allows Odessa College to offer a six-week certificate program tuition-free to students. Students also receive personal welding equipment such as goggles and gloves to take to subsequent employment. In all, the grant is expected to serve 500 students who will be eligible to apply for employment as trained welders who average a beginning annual salary of $40,000 in West Texas.
Graduates of Odessa College’s welding program need not worry about job security in Texas. Employers in and near the cities of Corpus Christi, Port Arthur, Beaumont and Texas City report that they cannot find enough welders. A Valero representative even reported in a September 2008 interview that the company needed more welders than it had been able to hire in the past two years.
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/.