The opportunities for young people locally to receive job training in high school or immediately after — as opposed to pursuing a bachelor’s degree — have grown in recent years, but too few are taking advantage, local leaders involved in such efforts said Monday.
“The challenge is getting the word out that these opportunities are available,” said John W. Williams, assistant chief administrative officer with Baton Rouge city-parish government.
Then there’s the additional challenge of connecting people and their new skills with needed jobs.
“There is probably something for everybody,” Williams said. “The challenge is getting those people in front of the right people.
At the moment, the bulk of Louisiana’s youth are missing those chances.
“Our current system is only working for 18 to 23% of our students,” said Tonnisha Ellis, policy and research project manager with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.
Ellis based her comment on research from the Louisiana Board of Regents showing that only about that percentage of students who enter high school in the state end up later earning a post-secondary credential or an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
Monday’s panel, entitled “The Future of Career and Technical Education” was organized by the nonprofit group Volunteers in Public Schools. Williams and Ellis were joined by Willie Smith, chancellor of Baton Rouge Community College and Ben Necaise, associate superintendent for workforce development with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
BRCC and the parish school system have joined forces in recent years to create more ways for students to earn college credit while still in high school as well as to get training in high-demand job fields.
“We have some very good secrets but they really shouldn’t be secrets,” said Necaise.
These include the EBR Career and Technical Education Center, and the P-TECH program at Tara High School, a partnership with IBM, which both opened in 2018.
This fall, the school system launched Pathways to Bright Futures, with a pilot program at Glen Oaks High. Necaise said Pathways is a more structured approach to dual enrollment. Rather than students enrolling in dual enrollment courses “a la carte,” high school students starting in ninth grade take a sequence of dual enrollment courses with BRCC that aims to give them a short at earning an associate’s degree while still in high school or soon after.
“All of these programs if they do it at the high school level it’s free,” Necaise said. “We cover it all.”
The panelists, as well as several audience members, debated whether the push in recent years for all students to get bachelor’s degrees went too far. They also questioned if there’s been too much focus on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — at the expenses of other job fields.
“We told students to go to college,” Necaise said. “We forgot to ask them why they should go to college.”
Smith, with BRCC said that idea, is to make better use of community colleges like his versus four-year colleges. He said four-year colleges still have important role, especially for more advanced students to further their education, but students need to realize there are more options.
“We need our four-year colleges to succeed,” Smith said.
Mike Gaudet, a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, defended the focus on STEM jobs because those jobs are much more diverse than they used to be.
“The image that these are just shop classes is untrue,” Gaudet said.
Williams said a key to fixing this problem is getting young people to think about their job options very early.
“The message has to start at the earliest level possible,” he said. “My thought is at the middle school.”