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Career and Technical Education Legislative Forum Print E-mail
by Tom Pauken    Wed, Oct 24, 2012, 05:30 PM

Everywhere I go in Texas, employers tell me about the shortage of skilled workers and a greying workforce. The annual survey of Manpower Group for 2011 found that the hardest jobs to fill in the United States were for the skilled trades. A recent survey by the consulting firm Deloitte “found that 83% of manufacturers reported a moderate or severe shortage of skilled production workers for hire.” The results are similar here in Texas.

            Just to cite a few examples: the average age of a welder is 55, a plumber 56, and a stone masonry craftsman is 69.

What happened to our pipeline of skilled workers? Somehow, over the last two decades, certain political elites decided that everyone should be prepared to go to a four year university. I call it a “one size fits all” approach. In an attempt to make every high school student “college ready,” our state has come to rely on a so-called 4-by-4 curriculum and an expensive high stakes testing system. First, there was the TASS test, then the TAKS test, and now we have the STARR test. So much of our educational system is driven these days by a “teaching to the test” mentality from the third grade through high school. In many ways, test learning has replaced real learning. Meanwhile, in this quest to push every student to go to a university, we have deemphasized our Career and Technical Education programs at the high school level.

In his marvelous book “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work,” Mathew Crawford points out that “high-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” Writing at the time of the Great Recession four years ago, Crawford had this to say:

“This seems to be a moment when the useful arts have an especially compelling economic rationale. A car mechanics’ trade association reports that repair shops have seen their business jump significantly in the current recession: people aren’t buying new cars; they are fixing the ones they have. The current downturn is likely to pass eventually. But there are also systemic changes in the economy, arising from information technology, that have the surprising effect of making the manual trades – plumbing, electrical work, car repair – more attractive as careers. The Princeton economist Alan Blinder argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labor market is not between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person or on site. The latter will find their livelihoods more secure against outsourcing the distant countries. As Blinder puts it, ‘You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.’ Nor can the Indians fix your car. Because they are in India.”

To borrow a phrase from Will Rogers, “if stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t it get us out?” The answer to this critical shortage of skilled workers is simple, but not easy. There are powerful interests arrayed to protect the existing system of education financing and performance measurements. The problem is that the system is broken -- and the average Texan gets it, even if many of the political elites don’t. The time is ripe for major reform of our educational system so that we place greater emphasis on vocational and technical education at the secondary and post-secondary school levels.

            Let’s replace the one-size-fits-all TAKS and STAAR tests that we use to evaluate all our students, with two different tests – one that measures college readiness for those who plan to pursue that route such as the ACT or SAT, and one that measures career readiness.

            We all learn differently. Some students don’t enjoy or do well in an abstract classroom setting -- I have a son like that -- but would excel by working with their hands in a skilled trade. That’s why a “hands on” approach to skills training is so important in preparing a student to be job ready.

            Let’s give our high school students the facts about the employment market. Young people who have completed an industry-certified skills training program in high school or in a post-secondary community college or career school have a better opportunity to get a good - paying job than many graduates of four-year universities. A graduate of Texas State Technical College with a two-year associates degree in the engineer – related technology field of instrumentation can go to work in the petro-chemical industry at a starting salary of $68,000. A master plumber can make $75,000 in three years. An industry – certified welder from the Craft Training Center in Corpus Christi can make $1,700 a week.

            If we are going to move in this direction of rebuilding our pipeline of skilled workers with increased opportunities for vocational education, we have to be creative in how we go about implementing these changes given our finite resources. Equipment is expensive for certain technical training programs, and we have to be resourceful in providing these opportunities to our young people.

            We need to avoid expensive duplication of services wherever possible. The Craft Training Center in Corpus Christi is a great example of a public-private partnership that provides skills training for high school students in the day and adults in the evening in a cost effective fashion. Students from 14 area school districts and a charter school come to a central location at the training center where they receive industry-certified instruction to become welders, electricians, pipefitters, and in other skilled trades. Anne Matula runs the Craft Training Center, and she points out that students who get skills training there also do better academically as they learn to appreciate the importance of basic math and literacy skills in mastering the craft they are learning. In fact, research from the Texas Workforce Commission Labor Market and Career Information division has found that students who take a coherent sequence of CTE courses do better academically, have higher graduation rates, lower dropout rates, and better college attendance.

            We also should do more to empower community colleges to partner with school districts across the state. San Angelo area high schools operate a workforce training center with Howard College where high school students can earn an industry- certified credential in fields ranging from building and trades to allied health professions. Students not only get industry-certified training but also get dual credit. A similar program is operational in Mt. Pleasant with the high school and Northeast Texas Community College.

            Some community colleges have underutilized capacity that could be made available to provide technical training to local high school students. As a state, we need to make it more attractive for such partnerships to develop and flourish.

            A major priority in the next legislative session must be to fix a misguided education policy with a common sense solution which recognizes that students have different talents and interests. I want to make it clear that I fully support holding schools accountable through a multiple pathway approach to a high school diploma. But, the current system does not hold schools accountable for successfully educating and preparing students-rather it makes them beholden to performance on a single test. Success and accountability can be measured in a variety of ways.

            Some critics of my emphasis on reinstating vocational education as a key component in a comprehensive high school educational curriculum claim that I want to go back to tracking certain students, particularly minorities, away from college and into career education. Well, we already have a tracking system under the existing education policy -- it’s called the drop out track.

            Such claims fail to acknowledge that we are losing too many kids who lose interest in education at an early age and who might have thrived had they been given more opportunities for career and technical education in high school. A renewed recognition of the value of vocational education for those students so interested can provide an opportunity pathway for many students who otherwise might fall through the cracks under a “one size fits all” approach to education.

            Much of the emphasis on testing – including the unveiling of the STAAR program – is a well-intentioned effort to improve education attainment in Texas. But we’ve put most of our emphasis on standardized testing for the past two decades, and yet we still have a big problem with dropout rates, and increased scores on state exams often don’t translate into improved college entrance exam scores.

            The usual response from the testing bureaucracy is to roll out a new test, make a few technical changes to the accountability system, and promise everything will be better if we just give it a chance to work. That’s what they said when TAAS became TAKS, and that’s what they’re saying now that TAKS is becoming STAAR.

            Frustration on the part of parents, employers, and educators with the current system has built up for years. Change is long overdue, and we need to have the courage to propose bold, meaningful solutions to these issues, rather than just tinkering around the edges.

            It’s time to end one-size-fits-all and restore local control to our public school system. Instead of having the government telling students and parents what it thinks their career future should be, let’s provide good information to parents and let individuals choose what’s best for them. Let’s have a system that encourages students and school districts to work with local employers to fill good jobs in industry and manufacturing.

            Our state faces serious workforce challenges in the future as the “Baby-Boom” generation retires. The only way to solve them is to move away from failed policies and move toward what works.

            It’s time to recognize that the current “Teach to the Test” system is a failure and replace it with local control and individual freedom. I look forward to working with the people in this room to achieve those ends. Thank you.


Remarks by Tom Pauken at Headliners Club, Austin, Texas on October 18, 2012


Tom Pauken is Commissioner Representing Employers at Texas Workforce Commission

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Comments (2)add comment
written by Jason Sprenger , October 25, 2012

Skills gaps are emerging in the American economy, and they are worsening. As leaders debate how to curb this trend, they would be wise to keep career and technical education (CTE) in mind. As noted above, it's proven to boost student achievement, raise career prospects, revitalize communities and more. And it significantly helps reduce those skills gaps by providing trained workers where they are needed most.

The newly created Industry Workforce Needs Council is a group of businesses working together to curb skills gaps by advocating for CTE around the nation. For more information, or to join the effort, visit

Jason Sprenger, for the IWNC

written by Ruth Glendinning , October 25, 2012

Wonderful message!We're putting together a major social enterprise here in Austin that is mostly led by women, with the door wide open for men who have shared values. The Communiversity will be a multi-acre earning/learning campus providing sustainable opportunities based on shared values for the benefit of the entire community. The campus will be an educational pipeline for students of all ages and income levels to create an engaged educated citizenry prepared to fully participate in the community.

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