Tom Hunter resisted sending students into vocational education.
The Greensburg school superintendent spent years promoting college as a pathway to success for students from the community – population 11,747 – hit hard by the Great Recession. Four plants in the area were closed. Most jobs left were low-paying, low-skilled positions.
If employers complained to Hunter that his graduates lacked entry-level work skills, his response was curt: “It’s not my job to turn out good worker bees.”
These days Hunter takes a different view.
In July, Hunter and the Greensburg schools will open a $2 million, 16,000-square-foot training center that, with the help of local employers, creates a pipeline for students into two of Indiana’s fastest growing industries – advanced manufacturing and logistics.
Hunter sees the program as an alternative for nearly 40 percent of Greensburg students who, struggling in school, may not have the option of pursuing a traditional, four-year college degree.
“I don’t want a kid coming to school just to go to work,” he said. “And I definitely don’t want a kid to come to school to flip hamburgers. I don’t mean anything against McDonald’s, but that’s not the skill level we’re reaching for.”
Greensburg’s training center and Hunter’s conversion illustrate a broader rethinking of vocational education throughout Indiana.
In the coming months, under a mandate from Gov. Mike Pence and the Indiana Legislature, high schools will refocus on what is now called “career and technical education,” and redirect millions of dollars toward preparing students for higher-skilled, more-demanding, better-paying work.
They must move fast. In just six years, nearly two-thirds of the jobs in Indiana will require training beyond a traditional high school diploma, according to the Indiana Career Council. But just a third of the adult workforce has any post-secondary education.
But reforming “voke ed” forces schools, students, businesses and leaders like Hunter to abandon old notions of career training.
Indiana already has an abundance of vocational education opportunities, though not all are useful, according to many assessments.
A year before Pence took office, a study commissioned by the Indiana Education Roundtable showed about 100,000 of the state’s 330,000 high school students take one or more vocational courses each year. Indiana schools offer 160 different vocational classes, at a cost of about $100 million a year.
The 2011 report also discovered only about 10,000 students graduate each year with a high school diploma and a vocational or technical concentration, which is just six credit hours.
Few of those students – 15 percent at most – take courses in advanced manufacturing or pre-engineering and then pursue training in those fields after high school. Most students take a single elective, such as welding or early childhood education, which offers little work-ready training.
On Monday, a Pence-appointed task force recommended a new workforce strategic plan that includes a major overhaul of vocational education and how the state pays for it.
“The future of the state’s economic growth,” the report says, “depends on a Hoosier workforce in possession of the skills needed by high-growth, high-demand industry sectors.”
Not an assembly line
Examples of quality vocational education already exist in Indiana. The Greensburg schools are modeling their program on one in nearby Columbus, home to the global headquarters of engine-maker Cummins Inc.
In the two Columbus high schools, students from a four-county region can take a range of vocational courses, from culinary arts to 3-D animation. But there’s increased focus on courses in manufacturing, healthcare and tourism – the three big industries in southeast Indiana.
A coalition of area businesses and school leaders, working through the public-private partnership known as Ec015 (Economic Opportunities through Education by 2015), have helped craft the curriculum with job skills in mind. Cummins, with other area manufacturers, has helped develop courses in engineering manufacturing technology.
Five years ago, the company started offering a school-to-work program that lets students focus on coursework for part of the day while working part-time in Cummins’ research division. Students make a good wage, and the skills and experience they gain open the door for employment when a full-time apprenticeship opens up.
Of the 200 students who’ve participated in the program in the last five years, 50 have gone on to full-time positions with Cummins.
“It’s not assembly line work,” said Justin Baker, 18, who is working in Cummins’ high-tech machine lab this summer and hopes the skills he learned in the school-to-work program land him a full-time job. “It’s more creative than that. I learn as I go, and I’m learning every day.”
Steve Mackey, who coordinates the program for Cummins, said it was borne of necessity.
“We’re competing with advanced manufacturers from all over who need high-skilled workers, and it’s getting harder to find them,” said Mackey. “We decided we needed to grow some of our own.”
But there are hurdles to creating viable vocational programs. Some are logistical, like liability concerns that prevent teenagers under 18 from working in manufacturing plants.
Some barriers are financial. “It’s expensive for schools to set up high-tech machine shops,” said Mackey.
Some involve the way schools are measured by the state. Indiana’s school rating system, which can affect funding and teacher salaries, is based in part on scores on standardized tests that measure students’ college readiness.
And some involve the perception that comes with vocational education. “There’s still some stigma associated with advanced manufacturing work,” said Eco15 spokeswoman Stephanie Weber. “Some students still see it a last resort.”
The potential for a good job helps: In Indiana’s manufacturing industry, which has an average wage of $44,000 a year, there are currently 4,500 jobs unfilled.
Following the Columbus blueprint, schools in Greensburg have partnered with Honda Motor Co., a global manufacturer that opened a $550 million plant in the community in 2008. About 2,000 employees at the plant make 200,000 cars a year in a process that relies heavily on high-speed welding robots.
Like Cummins, Honda needs workers with advanced skills. This fall it will launch a program to train Greensburg High seniors in robotics maintenance. Those hired will enter a two-year apprenticeship, with more training provided in-house and at Ivy Tech Community College.
Honda’s goal is twofold, said Angela Topper, who works in development and training for the company. Like Cummins, it sees the need to grow its own skilled workforce. It also wants to elevate the prosperity of Greensburg.
“We want this to be a place where Greensburg High graduates can start out at $20 an hour, so they can raise their family and stay in the Greensburg community,” Topper said.
Tied to growth
Success creating a vocational program in Greensburg is one thing. Replicating it statewide requires some heavy lifting.
Pence’s task force on job training is calling for better alignment between career training and the industries projected for growth in Indiana. It wants to directly tie money spent on education, training and career development to priority sectors of the state economy: advanced manufacturing, agribusiness, energy, information technology, life science and health care, logistics and defense.
Within three years, the task force wants every Hoosier high school student to have an opportunity to earn early college credits or a high-quality workforce credential. And it’s recommending that all high schools provide work-based learning opportunities – like those in Columbus and Greensburg.
The approach marks a major shift from just a generation ago, when Hoosiers with only a high school diploma could land good-paying work in a factory or on a farm.
In communities like Greensburg, school leaders say they embrace the change.
“I used to say Greensburg was a blue-collar community that thought it was white collar,” Hunter said. “Back then, people who worked in factories lived in nice houses, drove nice cars and could send their kids to college.
“I want that same opportunity for our kids growing up here now,” he said. “It’s imperative in small-town Indiana that we provide those opportunities for our kids and people living here. If you don’t, it’s going to dry up and blow away.”
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