February 18, 2019

Time to start paying attention to education reform

Education reform is not a topic readily coming to mind when businesses start lobbying the Massachusetts legislature for change. The so-called reforms typically boil down to re-allocating money between communities – producing winners and losers – while throwing a billion or so additional dollars into the bucket so more programs can achieve funding.

But as the legislature seems poised to take up the topic this year with legislation rolling along toward a possible vote before the fiscal year ends in June. Business interests from around the state are keeping a watchful eye out for the way new laws are helping to shape the workforce of the future. The North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce already has gone on the offensive, pushing for changes to help facilitate more manufacturing workers into the pipeline. Manufacturing makes up a robust one-third of the jobs in the North County, and manufacturing and other trades are the largest share of overall Central Massachusetts economic production. The Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce in partnership with several employers groups in February ran a survey drilling down on the needs of employers when it comes to workforce readiness of our graduates.

Access to a well-trained workforce remains a critical issue statewide and ties directly into the education curriculum and what initiatives receive funding. While the details in any education reform package coming this year have yet to be fully formed, the chambers are on the right path prioritizing this issue.

Top priority initiatives include expanding career-exploration programs to younger grades and changing the success metrics of high schools – with less focus on college placements and more on diversifying the faculty pool. This time around, it seems like education reform has to be about more than just recalculating the funding mechanism.

One topic on the agenda is increasing access to vocational-technical education. Not that long ago, voke/tech schools were populated by students wishing to eschew a college degree in favor of entering into a skilled trade job immediately. Now, spurred by new investment in facilities and programs and efforts to attract high achievers, voke/tech schools are bringing in college-bound students while the student waitlist for the schools has grown longer and longer, now numbering more than 3,000. This backlog will deprive employers like manufacturers the skilled employees they need coming right out of high school.

The good news is the legislature is still early in the sausage-making process. The education reform bill can still be molded to fit the current and future needs of large groups of employers. For businesses who know of shortcomings in the current educational system, it's a great opportunity to influence the outcome and help strengthen our economy in the long run.


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