No issue is more important to Idaho’s future than quality education and the development of a skilled workforce through our education system.
Idaho citizens believe strongly that education is important. A survey released in January by The Farkas Duffett Research Group of 1,000 Idaho adults found that 60% name education as their top concern with the economy trailing at only 31%. The constant refrain from Idaho employers, large and small, is that they desperately need a skilled workforce to prosper and grow.
Nationally, both parties have rolled out myriad education proposals, but the focus is on higher education, not workforce development.
The Democratic candidates for president are engaged in a bit of one-upmanship. For instance, Elizabeth Warren wants to provide forgiveness of most student loans. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris are pushing the idea of four years of free tuition in public colleges and universities. Joe Biden is the relative piker, limiting free higher ed to two years in a community college.
On the Republican side, the Trump Administration has recently removed restrictions imposed by Obama on for-profit colleges, encouraged more workforce training at the higher education level and has circulated a proposal to forgive student loans after 15 years of income-based payments.
The opportunity here in Idaho is to do something more focused on job skills at the high school level. Gov. Brad Little has recently appointed a 26 member K-12 task force to develop a five year plan for “continuous improvement and outcomes”.
The K-12 task force should look seriously at doing something radical, something outside the box, by adopting recommendations to channel a substantial portion (not just a select few) of Idaho high school students into a vibrant vocational track with an integral connection to potential employers. This may be an alternative to a college degree for some, but for others it could be a stepping stone by reducing the need to rely on student loans.
Local school districts already have Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs that should be the building blocks. For instance, my local school district, District 91, offers the following:
- Financial services, ie. courses in banking & finance, computer applications, accounting, economics and entrepreneurship.
- Automotive technology
- Business digital communications, ie. web design, video editing and graphic design
- Business management and administrative support, ie. business courses, computer applications, accounting, etc.
- Computer technology
- Culinary arts
- Education and training
- Graphic design and information technology
- Health sciences
- Business administration
- Law enforcement/first responders
- Residential construction
What is missing is that today’s Idaho CTE programs are primarily for students who want an alternative to college. As such, these programs only reach a fraction of the student body. My daughter just graduated from high school and only a few of her fellow students had earned some kind of vocational certificate.
One way to change that dynamic is channel far more students into CTE. Students need to see CTE as a desired alternative, not a fall-back.
Germany offers guidance. There, state governments run the equivalent of K-12. Most students are involved in V.E.T., a combination of classroom training coupled with job placement. Most students spend a couple days in the classroom and the rest of the time with one of more than 400,000 companies that have partnered to provide paying jobs and/or apprenticeships. Over 80% of these companies hire students permanently who have worked for them. The connectiveness between public education and employers means that German companies have the skilled workforce they need and graduates have an inside track to landing good jobs.
Here in the United States the Denver schools have rolled out a program called CareerConnect where large numbers of students participate in apprenticeships, job shadowing or internships to find their passion, develop their skills and actually apply what they learn in the classroom.
Higher education is critically important for many professions and many students will continue on to earn degrees. But, strong employer-connected CTE will enhance opportunities for Idaho students who aren’t college bound and provide job skills for those who are (potentially reducing the need for expensive student loans).
So, K-12 task force, don’t just fiddle around the margins. Set a goal of putting at least a third of Idaho high school students into CTE programs within five years with an accompanying requirement that each student spend at least a year on-the-job with a potential employer.
This will create massive opportunities for Idaho students and Idaho employers, boosting wages and strengthening our economy. It is a win-win but requires vision and risk taking.