Haven’t you always wanted to work in sustainable forestry, or salmon restoration? How about a steady, working-wage job operating, maintaining and repairing machinery used in crop harvesting, or food processing? Washington state lawmakers might like to help you get there, by bringing two-year colleges and employers together around under-promoted career paths tied to agriculture, natural resources and the environment. New bipartisan legislation is part of that push.
Another measure now in front of lawmakers in Olympia would identify skills gaps, and prepare both employers and employees for many jobs of the near future, that could go otherwise unfilled by Washingtonians.
Does CTE Get Short Shrift?
A broader view of the jobs landscape helps. Some state lawmakers have voiced concerns that K-12 and postsecondary institutions in Washington focus too heavily on four-year degree attainment. This is often at the cost of career and technical education (CTE) options.
Industry stakeholders argue the four-year college degree is not for everyone, and educators should zero in on skills needed for manufacturing jobs and other mid-skill positions that provide good wages, a solid career path, and boost the state’s rate of postsecondary credential attainment.
According to a recent Washington Roundtable report, the state is doing a poor job of making sure high school entrants progress to earn a postsecondary degree within seven years of their class graduation. The Roundtable’s research warns that 740,000 Washington jobs will need filling within the next five years, and a high percentage will require some form of additional education and training after high school.
Educating The Educators
HB 1404 would require the state’s Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board (WTECB) to conduct a study on current and future employment opportunities in the agriculture, natural resources and environment sectors. The intent is that the probe’s results would better illustrate to educators the feasibility of careers in those fields, and prompt them to expand or fine-tune course offerings.
Prime sponsor is State Rep. Gael Tarleton (D-36), and co-sponsors include State Reps. J.T. Wilcox (R-2), Luanne Van Werven (R-42), Mike Sells (D-38), and Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37). The companion bill is SB 5285. Prime sponsor is State Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-17), and the co-sponsor is State Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1).
In a public hearing on the measure Tuesday, January 31, Wilson told the Senate Higher Education Committee, “Students have the information and opportunities in front of them..to make…wise decisions” between four-year degree paths and CTE alternatives, but “we are going to have to make sure that their educators are aware of what jobs are out there. For Washington state, agriculture, environment and natural resources can offer great opportunities for our students.”
Hidden Jobs, Better Revealed
Tarleton told the House Higher Education Committee that HB 1404 “will advance our understanding of where the jobs are today and where the jobs of the future will be for Washington state.” WTECB, “along with the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC)…do everything they can to create educational and learning opportunities for the people of this state, but they have a hard time…connecting the education and learning to the people who employ the students, and professionals who are going through our educational program.”
Katherine Mahoney is the Worker Retraining Program Administrator for the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges. Those schools are known as CTCs. She told the House committee it’s crucial to understand employer needs, and to ensure “our CTC programs are lined up in providing a skilled and educated workforce for these jobs.”
According to a committee staff presentation, some of these positions are in clean technology, stormwater mitigation, and fish culvert rehabilitation; as well as the apple, wheat, dairy and potato industries; and forestry.
‘Misinformation’ About Career Paths
Kathryn Kurtz, Executive Director at the Pacific Education Institute, said, “Currently, there is some misinformation about what’s available to students without a four-year degree in the agriculture, natural resources and environmental science fields…we feel like there is a real need to know what jobs are available,” and “what skills those kids need, so that we can communicate and work with teachers to prepare kids effectively for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers that are available, especially out in our rural areas.”
WTECB in its recent strategic plan aims to prepare employers and applicants to fill anticipated job needs and address skill gaps. Under HCR 4402, lawmakers would adopt a required quadrennial update of the board’s “Talent and Prosperity for All” (TAP) plan. The measure has bipartisan support, including sponsorship from Sells, and State Reps. Larry Haler (R-8), Gerry Pollet (D-46), and Cary Condotta (R-12).
The plan’s focus is to better analyze the successes and shortcomings of the state’s workforce programs, and get employers more involved in linking education and training to work opportunities.
According to the TAP blueprint, there’s payback for the time spent. “If employers are willing to partner with the workforce system, expend energy, and devote resources, they can leverage their investment to create sustainable solutions to their workforce challenges.”
SCR 8401 would grant needed Senate approval to the updated board plan. Sponsors include State Sens. Barbara Bailey (R-10), Christine Rolfes (D-23), Bob Hasegawa (D-11), and Ann Rivers (R-18).
Amy Anderson is Government Affairs for Education, Workforce Development and Federal Issues at the Association of Washington Business, and co-chairs the TAP planning committee.
Anderson said the past few years were spent to “align all the state’s workforce partners and ensure that the workforce that is being developed is the workforce business needs to grow and support the economic prosperity of the state of Washington…the workforce system heard loud and clear from businesses that we could build better and stronger partnerships.”