Baker touts voc-tech training after budget push falls short

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Gov. Charlie Baker wants to more than quadruple annual funding for an initiative to train 20,000 new workers in high-demand trades, but House Democratic leaders this week showed little appetite for the expansion.

Baker proposed directing $16.9 million to the Career Technical Initiative program in his fiscal year 2022 budget, a boost that he and his deputies said would accelerate economic recovery and help close unemployment gaps exacerbated by the pandemic. But the House did not incorporate that funding in the budget it passed early Thursday morning.

During a Thursday tour of Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School, Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and cabinet secretaries said greater investment in vocational and technical education opportunities is even more necessary now than when they launched the CTI program in January 2020 because of COVID-19’s impact.

“For us here in Massachusetts, we have a lot of people who thought they had a good job in a space where there was employment opportunity and possibility for advancement, and the pandemic certainly took a lot of that away,” Baker said. “I worry that if we don’t create this pivot and create this capacity and give people places and opportunities to gain these skills so that they can participate fully, and the industry they were in doesn’t come back the way it was before, we have the potential to leave a lot of people behind.”

The program aims to train 20,000 new workers over four years using three different shifts during the day at vocational schools: traditional daytime classes for students, afternoon programming for students who are enrolled in traditional high schools, and evening options for adults who are retraining or seeking a career change.

Baker and lawmakers agreed to $4 million in funding for the program in the fiscal year 2021 budget, and on Thursday, the administration awarded $2.1 million in CTI grants to support training programs at 10 vocational technical high schools.

The governor, however, proposed a significant expansion for the vocational training program in his FY22 budget (H 1), bumping CTI funding up to more than $15.3 million through the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development and recommending another $1.5 million through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

That push did not find a receptive audience in the House. The Democrat-controlled Ways and Means Committee proposed $4 million for career technical institutes in its budget draft (H 4000), less than one-quarter of what Baker recommended.

Rep. Josh Cutler, House chair of the Labor and Workforce Development Committee, filed an amendment that would have bumped up the CTI line item to $15.3 million, mirroring Baker’s EOLWD section of the proposal, but Cutler’s proposal was not adopted as part of a mega-amendment on labor and economic development issues compiled by House leaders. The final $47.7 billion budget as passed in the early-morning hours Thursday level-funds the program at $4 million.

“A number of industries are making permanent adjustments in response to the pandemic, which could result in staffing reductions in certain industries,” Cutler said while introducing the labor and economic development consolidated amendment Wednesday night. “Funding for retraining is crucial in getting people back into the workforce.”

Asked if he was disappointed the House opted not to adopt his recommended CTI funding increase, Cutler on Thursday touted other areas in which the budget spends on workforce development.

“The House budget, which increases workforce development funding by more than $3.4M over the Governor’s request, represents a serious and committed effort to help our economy recover in the short term and ensure that our workforce has the skills, tools and training needed to succeed in the Commonwealth’s post-pandemic economy,” he said in a statement to the News Service. “In addition to significant increases for YouthWorks, MassHire and the Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund, the House also creates a new Offshore Wind Energy Career Training initiative with $10M to ensure we have a workforce pipeline ready to meet the needs of this burgeoning industry.”

Polito said the administration had been focused on expanding vocational technical opportunities before the pandemic hit, recounting how employers in several trades had job openings they were struggling to fill with skilled workers.

The forced shutdowns and changing business models that took effect over the past year upended the economic landscape.

After spiking from 2.7 percent in March 2020 to 16.4 percent in April 2020, the state’s unemployment rate has since dropped to 6.8 percent as of March 2021. Only about 400,000 of the 700,000 jobs lost at the peak of the crisis have returned.

The impacts have been disproportionate. Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Rosalin Acosta said unemployment rates are more than double the statewide average for Latino residents, at 17.5 percent, and for Black residents, at 14.5 percent.

“The concern that we have is during this pandemic, those gaps are more pronounced than they were before,” Polito said. “It brings to us a sense of urgency and a sense of mission to accelerate the pace of developing this talent, utilizing the resources and abilities you have.”

Women have also been hit particularly hard, in many cases because the abrupt in-person closure of schools and child care centers left many with increased caretaking burdens. Acosta said women represent 54 percent of the state’s unemployment claimants.

“It looks different,” Acosta said of the employment outlook in Massachusetts. “It is our job now to make sure that we are doing everything we possibly can with these dollars to make sure that we’re pulling in all of the communities that probably have not had the access to these programs previous to now.”

Data presented to state education officials in February showed that, among students who applied to vocational schools for ninth grade, 60.4 percent of students of color received offers of admission compared to 73.2 percent of white students.

About 75 percent of student applicants who were not economically disadvantaged and 58.5 percent of economically disadvantaged students received admissions offers, the data show.

This month, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley suggested changes to admissions regulations for vocational-technical schools. His proposal would give schools flexibility to set their own policies “that promote equitable access” while restricting the use of criteria that disproportionately exclude students in protected classes.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will likely vote in June on the final package.

Education Secretary James Peyser said Thursday that the so-called “second shift” of the CTI program, when students in traditional high schools participate in vocational-technical training in the afternoon, could increase high school voc-tech enrollment by 25 percent in the next three to four years.

The initiative and similar vocational investments the administration targeted in community colleges, training organizations and others represent “the most significant expansion of career technical education in over a generation,” Peyser said.

Baker said students and adults who participate will be better positioned to “meet the changing needs of our economy,” particularly as workers in trades retire over the coming years. He recounted seeing students at Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School already wearing laborers’ gear during his Thursday tour.

“I said, ‘Are these guys already members of Local 22?’ and the answer was no, but they will be, and that will be a great thing for you and a great thing for us here in Massachusetts,” Baker said.

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