Vermont's education system needs to focus on creating a qualified work force

by Angela Chagnon

Montpelier — Business and educational leaders testified before a  joint meeting of the House and Senate Education Committees to provide an overview of Vermont’s workforce development issues.

John O’Kane, a representative of IBM, began the testimony.  “We worry about the competitiveness of Vermont,” he said.  “Fifteen percent of our children don’t get high school degrees. Companies are looking for people with post-secondary skills.”

O’Kane emphasized the need for Vermonters to obtain technical skills to be competitive in today’s workforce, explaining that what is needed to bring business to the state is an population that contains both customers and a skilled workforce.  He said that Vermont needs to, “work toward an integrated system,” suggesting that students prepare for the workforce starting in kindergarten.  He laid out a plan of educational benchmarks, starting with children learning to read in kindergarten and have their reading skills firmly established by 3rd or 4th grade.  By 8th grade, O’Kane said, the students should be receiving guidance on education choices best suited for them, and by 12thgrade students should be doing internships and learning workforce skills.

According to O’Kane, integration of pre-K through 12th grade will provide children with a seamless education providing them with the skills and training to be successful. Government institutions have to provide the social support for people to be successful.  Though O’Kane was supportive of  “Pre-K through grade 16” legislation to achieve the goal for lifelong learning and success, he did not offer a plan to fund the legislation.

Indeed, most of the testimony focused on funding for various projects.

Patrick Burke, Principal of the South Burlington High School suggested an incentivized program to get kids to attend college, like lower tuition.

Kathleen Finck, Director of the Center for Technology in Essex, addressed the need for a new funding system for technical centers.  She called the current funding system, which is based on the average costs of the last 6 semesters, “artificial” and recommended that technical centers link to secondary schools for a seamless transition.

Pat Moulton Powden, Deputy Secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and Commissioner of Education, Armando Vilaseca, agreed with O’Kane that  in order to be successful, the state needed to put more emphasis on technical job training.  When asked what she expected the legislature’s role to be, Powden asked the legislature to implement wage requirements and to change the education system.

Armando Villaseca, the Vermont Education Commissioner, testified to the need for Vermont’s school system to “evolve” to meet the current need for skilled workers.  He recommended changing Vermont’s licensing requirements to address the fact that many teachers don’t have extensive technical training.  When asked if an analysis had been done on the wage scale of math teachers, Vilaseca responded, “We have a system where we pay everyone the same rate.”

Pat Moulton Powden, Deputy Secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, spoke on behalf of the Vermont Training Program, which trains employees mainly for manufacturing, information technology, telecommunications, healthcare and environmental development jobs.  Access to the customized training programs is based on wage requirements.

“More education training leads to higher wages,” she said.  “There’s a lot of money in the work development system between all of [the agencies].”  But, she pointed out, a lot of the money is targeted for certain groups of people, like the disabled, while some of the money is targeted for employers.  “There’s not a lot of flexibility for spending.”

Eileen Illuzzi, President of the Vermont Adult Technical Education Association, suggested starting career education with students in 4th grade or younger.  She expressed two things for the legislature to address, which were funding for tech centers and coming up with a plan for what they wanted the workforce education system to be like.

“Don’t bite off too much,” Illuzzi advised.  “You’re talking pre-K to 16, that’s huge, that’s daunting.”