When a soft-spoken Gary Warren ran for state Board of Education in 2008, one of his goals was to help people understand that career-technical education may be the best way for students to enter the workforce in a hurry.
Now, a projected need for 7,000 welding jobs at new steel and ship-building companies in south Alabama, and expanding defense and technology companies in north Alabama, means that career-technical education also may bring big paychecks.
Warren, a farmer and building contractor, gave up his job as a career-tech education program administrator in Haleyville schools to run for the state school board. He believes a logical first step to the career-tech jobs now in demand is hands-on courses in high school, an emphasis that fell out of favor in many schools until recently.
“I think you’re going to see some emphasis on technical education,” Warren said after one recent board work session on community and technical colleges. “We need to get career tech a line item in the education budget so it can have more consistent funding,” Warren said.
Why the emphasis on technical education at this point?
“Not everyone wants or needs a four-year degree. Some people must go to work as soon as possible after high school. There should be room for both,” Warren said. “And now, the reason is often the salaries.”
Career tech jobs with earnings beginning at $20-$30 per hour now spark more interest than in the past but the jobs still require training that schools msut provide.
Warren took his career tech crusade to interviews the board conducted last week for candidates for state superintendent of education. He asked each candidate what he would do to provide better funding and increase high school and college cooperation in career tech program development.
Craig Pouncey, the state’s deputy superintendent for finance was one of the contenders. Pouncey told Warren the Department of Education may need to allocate specific resources for career tech and allow some funding flexibility to local school systems. Pouncey also said high schools and colleges need to work more closely on programs that enable students to prepare for the workplace that may involve high school and college courses simultaneously.
“We have tried on more than one occasion to increase collaboration with them without success,” Pouncey said.
Warren also preached the career tech gospel at the board’s two-year college system October work session. “If career tech had its own leadership structure it would help focus the programs and help foster collaboration,” Warren said.
Two-year system Chancellor Freida Hill told Warren career tech is a priority for the system in the year ahead.
Hill joked that Warren practically threatened to lock her and Alabama Industrial Development Training Director Ed Castile in a room together until they did career tech planning for the two programs.
Once considered a place where students went to build bird houses and hang out until the next class, career tech may be Alabama’s hope for pulling the economy out of deep doldrums. It also can put students in the workplace rapidly.
A career-tech public high school proposed for former TVA property along the Tennessee River in the Shoals is a dream some people in the area now have for the region. A few years ago, in a different kind of job climate, Warren said the interest wouldn’t have been there.
With more courses offered in area technical colleges and Robotics Technology Park at Calhoun Community College, more opportunities for hands-on courses and degree programs exist than in the past.