TANGENT — Oregon will soon face a significant shortage of skilled trades workers if school districts don’t reinstate career training programs, state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian told a couple dozen educators from Linn, Benton and Lane counties Tuesday morning at the Central Electrical Training Center in Tangent.

“The average age of people in trades such as electricians in Oregon is the late 40s to late 50s,” Avakian said. “The average age of apprentices used to be 19 and today it is 26.”

Avakian strongly supported the 2011 passage of HB 3362, which he said will enhance career and technical education throughout the state.

The legislation established a grant program to: fund the restoration and expansion of career training education in middle and high schools; help form skills centers and career training based charter schools; require inter-agency coordination on career training issues; and foster partnerships among public schools, community colleges, universities, businesses and trade unions.

The bill set aside $2 million, and there have already been about 40 applications for an estimated 10 opportunities that will be screened by a statewide committee. The goal is to increase the biennium funding “until career education programs are reinstated in every school district in the state,” Avakian said.

“Time after time, we are told by prospective employers that they are unsure about the status of Oregon regulations and they are concerned about our state’s lack of a ready workforce,” Avakian said.

He said career programs that were formally called “shop” classes, “add a dimension to life experiences that students won’t get otherwise. It’s part of raising well-rounded children, and that’s the same with music and art programs.”

Avakian said about 60 percent of Oregon students who enter high school as freshmen graduate in four years, and that jumps to 80 percent for students who participate in career education programs.

But students who are interested in vocational careers often are dissuaded by their parents, who want them to get a university degree, said Donna Kleim, of Corvallis High School.

“It’s not the kids,” Kleim said. “Parents don’t see the value in skilled trades. A cultural shift is needed and people need to realize where the jobs are going to be and that you can make a very good living with trade skills.”

School districts must also look forward and not backward when developing their career training programs, Avakian and others agreed.

“Perhaps we should be looking at teaching kids how to install solar panels, or something to do with the emerging health care industry,” Avakian said.

As important as learning the mandatory skills of a trade, students must also learn “soft skills,” said Kristin Gunson of the Lane Education Service District.

“Students need to learn to be on time, to work as a team and to exhibit critical thinking skills that carry over into all fields of employment,” Gunson said.

School systems must also “break down barriers,” when it comes to thinking about where education programs will be held, several people said.

For example, a dozen students from College Hill, Crescent Valley and Corvallis high schools are currently spending one day per week for five weeks at the training center learning about a possible career as an electrician. Students from Albany and Sweet Home will participate in coming months.

“I had signed up for a culinary arts program, but there wasn’t room,” said Maricella Hernandez, a 14-year-old freshman at Crescent Valley High School. “But this is really fun and interesting.

CVHS senior Jules Fajer, 17, said the program is right up his alley.

“I’ve been interested in becoming an electrician since last summer,” Fajer said as he stripped wires to make an electrical switch connection.

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