For all its high-quality colleges and universities, Kansas also needs to be a place where companies can count on finding a ready-made workforce highly skilled in technical trades. Gov. Sam Brownback gets it, and deserves praise for making career and technical education a key priority of his economic agenda and a big win for the 2012 legislative session.
Senate Bill 155 stands out for its unanimous passage during a year of historic conflict between the House and Senate.
It’s especially important for Wichita, which needs to replenish its aviation workforce as baby boomers retire and the demand for new aircraft rebounds.
To its credit, the measure tries to get to these would-be skilled workers while they’re young.
It covers the tuition for all high school students who take career and tech ed courses at nearby tech schools and community colleges. It also gives school districts a potent incentive to promote career and tech ed, by providing a district $1,000 for each high school student who graduates from the district with an industry-recognized credential identified by the state as being in a high-need occupation.
As Brownback said of the law, which he signed ceremonially June 27 at Sedgwick County’s National Center for Aviation Training: “The value of obtaining an industry-recognized credential by the time a student graduates from high school is immense. That graduate will have a marketable skill to enter the workforce and, if they choose, have the ability to work during college to limit their debt – all without paying a penny in tuition. The community and technical colleges benefit from more students, the school district benefits from the $1,000 incentive, and the economy benefits from having another skilled worker join the workforce. Everybody wins.”
In Wichita, where 75 percent of current USD 259 high school students take at least one career or technical education course, the law should strengthen the ties between the school district and area two-year colleges, as well as between colleges and employers.
The logistics of getting high schoolers to take outside classes will be challenging, as Tony Kinkel, president of Wichita Area Technical College, recently told The Eagle. “If we can design a credential that industry says is valuable and the high school kid will do it, it will be successful,” he said.
Kinkel also called the new law an “opportunity for us to come to students and parents and say, ‘look, this is where the jobs are.’”
Four-year colleges and the degrees they offer will continue to be a powerful lure for many Kansas high school graduates, as they should be. But just as not every college degree guarantees a job, not every kid belongs in college.
With Brownback’s career and tech education initiative, Kansas is investing wisely in industry-driven technical training and its power to transform both young Kansans and the state’s economy.