072017-adh-nws-STEM camp at LBCC-1-dp.jpg (copy) (copy)

Josue Benitez-Flores, 13, an incoming freshman at Lebanon High School, practices MIG welding at Linn-Benton Community College as part of a CTE STEM camp.

David Patton, Democrat-Herald

It is a welcome development in the mid-valley's high schools, and it seems to be gaining momentum: Classes and programs devoted to career and technical education once again are gaining traction (not to mention students).

Certainly, classes teaching these skills (the classes that older graduates might recall as wood shop or metal shop or some similar title) never completely went away. But they went through a period of real neglect, and suffered funding woes, as high schools seemed to emphasize the idea of getting their graduates safely placed into four-year colleges, regardless of whether that was the best fit for every student.

Now, though, for a variety of reasons, those schools are beginning to rediscover the opportunities offered by career and technical education. And it's good to hear school administrators talking again about many different paths to graduation — and how some of those paths lead to good-paying jobs that don't require a four-year college education.

There's plenty of credit for this trend, but much of it boils down to business leaders sitting down with educators and having a frank discussion about their workforce needs. A voter-passed initiative that we opposed in editorials (and, frankly, still would oppose because it was, in essence, an unfunded mandate) has generated some funding specifically for these programs. And community colleges have emerged as key players.

For years, business leaders have worried about looming shortages of trained workers for critical positions. It's gotten to the point where those leaders have said that they're willing to train workers on their own dime if only they could find potential employees who are ready to work.

To their credit, educators responded: Linn-Benton Community College's Mechatronics program was an important early initiative in training students in how to succeed in manufacturing jobs. And LBCC was a key partner in the Pipeline program launched by the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce. Pipeline is meant to build connections between students and future jobs in local manufacturing industries, jobs that don't necessarily require four-year degrees.

Pipeline has since expanded throughout mid-valley school districts and even has jumped over the river to the Corvallis School District. And it has triggered a variety of related efforts: Some Linn County schools are experimenting with giving so-called "employment scores" to students. These scores measure a student's performance in areas (attendance, for example) that are important for workplace success. Now, LBCC is offering a Common Manufacturing Core Certificate this summer that comes with a guaranteed entry-level job to students who achieve the certificate. And the college is using those employment scores to prioritize applicants. 

At the same time all this was going on, the state has freed up millions over the next two years for career and technical education programs. This comes in the wake of last year's Ballot Measure 98, which forces the state to fund programs intended to boost high school graduation rates. (Our primary reservation to the measure was not because we doubted the importance of these programs, but rather that the measure didn't come with a funding source and so put additional pressure on an already-tight state budget. As it turned out, the Legislature allocated $170 million for all the programs — less than Measure 98 advocates had pushed for — but mandated that large- and medium-sized districts use at least a portion of the money for career and technical education.)

It all adds up to better times, at last, for career and technical education programs. Now, some of these programs have gathered rust over the years that needs to removed as they're refurbished. And the tricky business of anticipating future job needs in the workforce — and adjusting educational programs accordingly — always will be more art than science. But it's good to see career and technical education once again grabbing its well-deserved share of the educational spotlight. (mm)

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