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My View: Investment in high school vocational programs will pay off

Oregon’s competitiveness and ability to create well-paying jobs are fundamentally linked to the availability of a skilled workforce.

That’s one of the reasons that our office has worked so closely with legislative leaders, Oregon businesses, labor organizations and educators to secure investment for career and technical education for Oregon middle schools and high schools. Senate Bill 498, which is awaiting approval in the state Senate, will help bring back the shop classes that were once a staple in Oregon schools to ensure a talented, home-grown workforce.

Just as manufacturing looks much different than it did a generation ago, today’s career and education programs are not limited to the shop classes of old.

Students in places like Silverton are preparing for careers in sports medicine as they use DeWalt power drills to learn how to reconstruct blown-out knees. In Joseph, students are mastering computer-aided design skills and industrial automation so that their community will have a work force of skilled computer science professionals ready to support modern manufacturing.

And at Churchill High School in Eugene, educators and engineering professionals are partnering on a comprehensive science, engineering and mathematics curriculum that connects students with professionals working in the community.

I recently had the chance to tour Tigard technology firm InFocus to see first-hand some of the innovative Oregon products already fostering greater student engagement in classrooms and modern shop classes around the state. Developed by local talent, this technology — encouraging collaboration among students at Churchill High School and elsewhere — is helping students get excited about learning.

By investing directly in middle schools and high school career programs, we can provide access — early, before students drift for years before finding a viable path — to hands-on learning and tinkering that can help students discover their talents and passions.

Today, the average age of Oregonians enrolled in certified apprenticeship programs stands at 28. Compare that to the average from before we eliminated this career and technical education: 19.

We know that more than 90 percent of all students who participate in career and technical education programs graduate from high school on time. We know that businesses are clamoring for skilled workers, one of the reasons that so many programs benefit from private-sector partnerships and support.

With Senate Bill 498, Oregon has the chance to extend leading-edge vocational programs to more than 20 schools around the state. Let’s seize the opportunity and invest in Oregon students for a stronger economy and middle class.

Brad Avakian of Beaverton is head of the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries.

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