Head wants a governor’s school for career and technical education

December 14, 2017

Chris Head wants to invent a new type of school.

He wants to create a Governor’s School for career and technical education.

Virginia has had Governor’s Schools for academically-gifted students since the 1970s, a creation of Gov. Linwood Holton’s administration, if you’re inclined to give credit.

These regional “magnet” schools are intended “to meet the needs of a small population of students whose learning levels are remarkably different from their age-level peers.” There are now 19 of them across the state, including the Roanoke Valley Governor’s School for Science and Technology in Roanoke, the Southwest Virginia Governor’s School for Science, Mathematics & Technology in Pulaski, and the Jackson River Governor’s School in Clifton Forge. In an appropriate nod to the governor who founded them, the one in Abingdon is called the A. Linwood Holton Governor’s School.

For the past years, Head has been pushing to create an equivalent magnet school for top career and technical education students. The Republican delegate from Botetourt County, whose district includes parts of Roanoke and Roanoke County, hopes to squeeze some money out of the next state budget to create a pilot program in the Roanoke Valley.

Head happily credits John Williamson — then the president and CEO of Roanoke Gas, now retired — with giving him the idea. The motivation is to give a higher profile — and prestige — to career and technical education programs. “Parents my age remember when shop class was where you sent people when you got caught smoking,” Head says.

Now, it’s not shop class anymore. Mechatronics programs, for instance, look and feel a lot more like computer science classes. There’s also a growing concern in business circles that there simply aren’t enough students pursuing career and technical fields to satisfy the demands of the future economy. That’s a theme that runs through the recent report prepared by Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development for the GO Virginia economic development council that covers the region from Appomattox County to Giles County.

That report focuses on the nexus between a talented workforce and a growing economy. The short version: To attract more employers, we need a better-skilled workforce. However — and this is the key point — that doesn’t just mean we need more people with college degrees. We need that, too, the report says, but we also need better-skilled workers in other fields, also.

This is hardly a new concern. For one thing, simple demographics are at work. In 2010, a report by the Roanoke Regional Economic Development Partnership conducted a study on workforce needs in the region, and warned that a coming wave of baby boomer retirements was likely to create job openings in technical fields that would be difficult to fill: “There are serious pending workforce replacement needs in manufacturing industries that will require significant training . . . The region has a limited training capacity for skilled production technicians that is likely only serving to produce workers for immediate turnover needs and may not even be sufficient for that purpose. Retirements pending in the manufacturing sector over the next ten years will be incredibly difficult to fill without more training capacity and a larger talent pipeline.”

Then there’s the changing nature of the economy. The new economy is creating jobs that require more education than the old economy. That’s old news. The new news is that there is a growing demand for “middle skills” jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree. Instead, the relevant piece of paper is an industry-recognized credential of the sort typically issued by community colleges.

The National Skills Coalition found that in Virginia 49 percent of the jobs available call for those “middle skills,” but only 40 percent of workers have them, and that gap was likely to grow. How big is the demand for those middle-skills jobs? A 2015 study found that for every one job that requires an advanced degree, there are now two jobs that require a bachelor’s degree — but seven in that “middle skills” category.

That’s a pretty big gap. The problem, though, is encouraging students — and, critically, their parents — into pursuing those fields. That’s a point the GO Virginia report addresses: “Meeting this demand is a particular challenge due to lack of interest among younger generations. First, they may not know about the opportunities available to them, such as the higher than median income wages for many of these jobs. Second, our society has developed a stigma regarding these types of occupations; they are seen a manual labor and grunt work. Our education system and families tell students to go to a four-year college to be successful, and these occupations do not fall into that vision.”

This, by, the way, is a point that’s raised in many of the nine GO Virginia reports prepared for different regions of the state. Enter Head, and his proposal for a Governor’s School for career and technical education. He might have to come up with a different name; there are specific academic requirements in the language creating the existing Governor’s Schools that wouldn’t apply to a career and technical education equivalent. That’s a quibbling detail, though.

Head’s goal is two-fold: Symbolically, he hopes such a magnet school would add luster to all career and technical programs. Practically, he hopes it will accelerate students into the workforce. He envisions that students at a career and technical education Governor’s School could earn industry credentials through dual-enrollment programs administrated by community colleges — or they could enter community colleges at a higher level than they’d normally would. If the latter, that would save students money.

And either way, it would get them into the workforce quicker. Presumably, the purpose of a Governor’s School for career and technical education would be to focus on programs not already offered by individual school systems. That might be especially important in certain fields where equipment is expensive.

There are lots of details to be worked out, and perhaps turf battles to be fought, not to mention an undetermined amount of money to be obtained. But if Head succeeds, he will have set in motion an educational reform that both parties could get behind.