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When Oregon voters two years ago overwhelmingly approved a measure calling for significant new investment in career and technical education (CTE), it was a strong endorsement of one of the key missions of community colleges: To provide recent high-school graduates and mid-career workers with opportunities to earn technical certificates and degrees that qualify them for family wage jobs. Unfortunately, state leaders haven’t answered voters’ intentions with appropriations necessary to keep community college affordable.

The proposed budget now before the Oregon Legislature instead cuts funding, so much that it would price many would-be students out of opportunities and squelch growth of local businesses like mine for lack of qualified talent.

Oregon’s community colleges suggest a better alternative: A $217 million additional investment in their life-changing programs, which would allow keeping tuition rates relatively flat and expand CTE as voters approved.

OFD Foods’ positive experience with Linn-Benton Community College in Albany demonstrates what tremendous assets community colleges are to local economies. We work closely with LBCC to help it design not only technical degree programs, such as industrial automation, but also general business courses that are relevant to the workplace.

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LBCC’s flexible schedules allow students to attend part-time, usually while working, as many of our 500-plus employees do. It’s not uncommon for a night-shift production worker to work full-time while also carrying significant course loads during the day. I’m inspired by them.

A person who is today working in an entry level production job at one of our facilities has the opportunity to achieve trade certifications or earn an Associates Degree — at our expense — to qualify for a job that could pay up to twice as much. That’s life-changing.

We are fortunate to be able to support our employees in this way, but many smaller businesses are not able to do so. For people in entry or near-entry-level jobs, every dollar spent on school is a trade off: Perhaps put off new clothes for a child (one in six community college students is a single parent), or replacing an old, unreliable car. It’s critical to keep tuition as low as possible.

The Legislative session that has just convened offers a great opportunity for our state to provide more students — recent high-school grads and older students alike — a quick start or a second chance at a family wage job. We need the Legislature to back its kind words about the value of career and technical education with the action of appropriating enough funds to allow community colleges to keep tuition levels almost flat.

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Jim Merryman is president of OFD Foods, an Albany based maker of freeze-dried foods for the outdoors and the military under Mountain House and other brands.

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