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Schools can’t develop workforce alone

Posted: October 16, 2017 5:04 p.m.
Updated: October 17, 2017 1:00 a.m.

Every time there’s a societal, economic or other crisis issue of some sort, public schools are usually expected to solve it … oftentimes without any additional funding or inadequate funding at best. The history speaks for itself. Name the problem, and public schools are tasked with fixing it. 

There’s a great book by a fellow named Jamie Vollmer called Schools Can’t Do It Alone, where he lists three full pages of programs that have been added to schools over the past hundred years in response to very legitimate problems. Unfortunately, there’s a limit on what schools can do in seven instructional hours per day over 180 days, especially now that what we have to teach is very prescribed by the state, not to mention incredibly time-consuming. We also spend a lot of time giving high-stakes standardized tests, which is a topic all by itself.

The current big issue is workforce development. Certainly, Kershaw County is very focused on this area. While I don’t really need a whole lot of prompting about the importance of workforce development, I was reminded of how much it’s in the forefront a couple of weeks ago when two related situations happened to me on the same day. 

At our local Chamber of Commerce meeting, I heard a representative from the South Carolina State Chamber talk about workforce issues in our state. It’s a real and important concern. There’s undoubtedly a skills gap in our state, as evidenced by the fact that 45 percent of available jobs require certifications that are possessed by only 29 percent of the workforce. There are shortages of qualified workers in healthcare, business and IT, transportation, healthcare, distribution and logistics, manufacturing and construction. There are also issues with “soft skills” such as punctuality, collaboration and even the ability to pass a drug screen. The speaker, and very rightfully so, talked about the important role that public schools must play in addressing these issues. 

Fast forward to the afternoon of the same day. I was driving from one school to another and on the radio (I’m old … I Iisten to the radio in the car), I heard two news commentators talking about how schools are essential to solving our state’s workforce needs and how schools need to do a better job. As I said, I get workforce development and the role schools play in it. Regrettably, however, what mostly happens to school folks is that we get told from on high to fix it and fix it now, without much to do it with. As is so often the case, we are expected to prepare a sumptuous chicken dinner with chicken feathers.

We’re doing a lot in Kershaw County with workforce development. The construction of a new ATEC on the same campus with Central Carolina Technical College will be a game changer. Our District is providing a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) experience for all middle school students and expanded STEM opportunities in high school. We’ve also expanded other Career and Technical (aka Vocational) opportunities, especially in the health care area. Further, we’ve begun some very good work with our guidance counselors from elementary on up to expose them to career possibilities that don’t require a four-year degree. Our county and other community partners have really stepped up to help us with this area.

That said, there’s always more we can do, with some help. I’d like to offer a few hopefully constructive suggestions to decision makers, especially at the state level and in the business community:

• Provide incentive funding for workforce development course offerings in school districts -- I like incentive-based funding because it requires the recipients and the funding sources to both have skin in the game. Starting and sustaining programs like STEM, for example, is crazy expensive. Because baseline state funding for school districts has not met legal requirements for quite a few years, school districts don’t have much fiscal wiggle room to do new things. Implementing something new often requires cutting another program. Incentive funding from the state would be a solid strategy for generating sustained workforce partnerships between the state and local school districts. I would encourage the business community to push this as a legislative initiative.

• Provide state assistance with apprenticeships -- Expanded apprenticeships, especially in specialized areas in the building trades, would be a huge help. State government could assist in a couple of ways. First, it would be a huge boost for the state to fund school district positions to serve as liaisons with companies to develop and oversee apprenticeships. Also, the state could provide liability coverage for companies providing apprenticeships. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to apprenticeships is concern on the part of companies, particularly small ones, about liability.

• Assist school districts with “soft skills” instruction -- I hear on a regular basis from business folks who are concerned that they see too many applicants who lack “soft skills.” Again, schools are being expected to take the lead in an area that I believe is a shared one involving schools, families and the greater community. That said, the various curriculum programs out there for soft skills are quite costly. It would help school districts a lot if the state chamber or some other business organization would collaborate with educators to develop curriculum and then help to underwrite its implementation. Right now, it’s just another unfunded quasi mandate.

My point is that workforce development is an area that requires the emphasis of all the stakeholders. Schools play a role, but the business community and government must also step up and do their part. My take is that there’s often too much finger pointing (mostly at schools) and not enough concrete action. 

I’m always pleased to talk with folks about our schools. My direct dial phone number is 425-8916 and my email is Citizens can also contact me through the “Ask the Super” link on the homepage of the district website. I also invite community members to read my “blog,” which can also be reached through a link on the homepage of the district website. In addition, I do a podcast after each School Board meeting summarizing the meeting. This podcast can also be accessed through a link on the district homepage.


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