(Photo Credit: Elvert Barnes/Flickr)
At a recent White House event on long-term unemployment, a young veteran named Erick Varela had the honor of introducing President Obama. Erick talked of his struggle from unemployment to a career at PG&E, where he is now an apprentice electrician in Eureka.
Erick, like many returning veterans and those unemployed or underemployed, had been unable to connect his experience to the current needs of employers. After being a U.S. Army combat infantryman in Iraq, he struggled to find work upon returning to civilian life and, at one point, even became homeless.
“I was motivated to work,” said Erick. “And I wanted to work. And I knew I could contribute to society like I had in the military. But I felt helpless, lost and more importantly, a disappointment and failure to my family.”
Unfortunately, Erick’s story is not unusual. Due to a steady decline of investment in career technical education (CTE) brought on by recessionary factors, Californians are finding it more difficult than ever to obtain critical training for job skills that today’s employers demand. In fact, community, civic and business leaders continually identified workforce as an important issue during 16 regional forums held last year to identify key areas for improving job creation in the state. That’s why the 2013 California Economic Summit, convened last November, named workforce as one of its seven priority issues and why an action team is working year round to advance workforce development. The Summit’s playbook also galvanized a shared commitment to address capacity issues that constrain the ability of community colleges to respond to the career technical education needs of their regional economies.
Erick embodies what can happen when job training is done right. His life changed when PG&E accepted him in its PowerPathway program and ultimately hired him in 2010. California can benefit from workforce development policies that support more of this shared investment approach.
When hard fiscal decisions result in diminished offerings of programs that are valuable to students and communities, no one is well-served, observed the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy in a recent report. Of particular concern is the preservation and growth of education programs that provide critical training needed for career pathways that lead into today’s job market, which increasingly is demanding highly skilled workers. Many of the higher-cost programs are in fields and industry sectors important to economic growth in California and its regions, such as allied health, advanced manufacturing, various engineering technologies and alternative energy.
In the 2014-15 budget, policymakers need to pay attention to how community colleges respond. These institutions should build upon the high student success rates and the earning power of those who complete CTE certificates and degrees. In Anthony Carnevale’s report from Georgetown’s Center for Education and Workforce, The College Payoff; Education, Occupation, Lifetime Earnings, he confirms the link between CTE high completion rates and earning power. Intentional focus on this type of education is deserved, and would enable California’s community colleges to realize a stronger role in workforce training.
Pairing state investment in CTE and pathways with regional decision-making that prioritizes how those funds are used is the critical combination needed. This would complement the progress to date of the Student Success Initiative within the California Community Colleges.
We need more success stories like Erick’s, and encourage legislators to prioritize funding for workforce programs to close our state’s skills gap and improve job opportunities for all.
Alma Salazar and Van Ton-Quinlivan are co-chairs of the California Economic Summit Workforce Action Team. Salazar is vice president of Education & Workforce Development at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and attended the White House event on long-term unemployment. Ton-Quinlivan is vice chancellor of Workforce and Economic Development of California’s Community Colleges and architect of the PowerPathway program that brought Erick Varela into PG&E.