Vocational education advocates are urging lawmakers to beef up funding for more retraining programs as a way to help the tens of thousands of laid-off workers get back into the workforce.

Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed more than quadrupling state spending for a career training program, called the Career Technical Initiative, to educate some 20,000 workers for jobs in high-demand trades. As we emerge from the restrictions of the pandemic, it’s clear many jobs in food services, health care and hospitality aren’t coming back, so voc-tech training is more important than ever.

Lew Finfer, co-director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, spoke at an event Monday urging lawmakers to support a budget amendment by state Sen. Patricia Jehlen to bump funding for the Career Technical Initiative in line with Baker’s goal.

“There’s about 300,000 people who lost their jobs during the pandemic,” Finder told State House News Service. With so many sectors hurt by the pandemic, “people need retraining for the many jobs that are still available if you have the training.”

Baker’s plan last year set aside $8.4 million for the retraining initiative, but the administration had to compromise with lawmakers at $4 million in fiscal year 2021. For the next fiscal year Baker hopes to increase that amount to $16.9 million but the House, so far, isn’t buying it.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee’s budget offers $6 million in funding for the program and is up for debate next week. That amount is far short of Baker’s goal, which is why advocates are urging senators to back Jehlen’s amendment to raise the amount above $15 million.

The challenge isn’t only the immediate job retraining needs of thousands of laid-off adults. In many areas, there simply aren’t enough teachers, equipment and capacity for all the students in junior high and early high school who have applied for a seat in voc-tech high schools.

Vocational school training hasn’t always been viewed with the high regard the trades deserve. In recent years, however, as skilled trades employers have gotten the word out that they have steady, well-paying jobs and not enough people to fill them, more students have applied for voc-tech school admission. Many of those students live in the designated Gateway Cities, which include Lawrence, Methuen, Haverhill, Salem and Peabody in this region. Finfer said there are about 3,200 Massachusetts students on waitlists for vocational schools statewide.

Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, and a sponsor of a bill to increase spending in line with Baker’s goal, said the state has “an immense amount of untapped potential” in the trades fields. He cited a growing demand for workers in health care, advanced manufacturing and construction as the pandemic fades.

“These are very important fields that are growing fast, that pay well, and we need capacity at our schools,” he told the News Service.

There’s momentum to fund and raise the profile of vocational technical school training. Education Committee co-chair Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, co-authored a bill that would create an Office of Career Education within the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, as well as a commission to study options for funding career voc-tech career programs.

Creating this new office would help keep the focus on funding training programs, make sure the training keeps up with the needs of employers and changes in workplace technology, and ensure voc-tech schools have enough teachers, equipment and capacity to meet the needs of the many students who hope to enroll.

Lawmakers should get behind Sen. Jehlen’s budget amendment, which supports the funding level the governor wants for the Career Technical Initiative.

Jehlen said it best when she told the News Service, “The Career Technical Initiative allows workers to be property trained for some of the most in-demand trades. ... This past year has shown that we must invest in our workers and offer the resources necessary to succeed.”

That funding and focus need the full attention of lawmakers to get it done.


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