No Room for an Education?

A recent study by Northeastern University Law School yielded an unexpected tidbit of information; many vocational and technical high schools in Massachusetts have a significant waiting list for admissions. What was once a path chosen primarily by those unable or unwilling to go to college, gaining admission to a vocational/technical school has now become a highly competitive contest among thousands of local young people. Unfortunately, most of these schools do not have the capacity to admit all who apply, and many otherwise qualified students are being left behind.

What does this mean for the future of manufacturing-related industries here in Massachusetts? Is it a sign of a rebounding industrial sector or simply an indicator of a bad economy where the less well-off are left with few options for a post-secondary education? Or, is it a basic redefinition of a vocational/technical education that appeals more to a broader spectrum of students?

When asked why he thought vocational and technical schools have such long waiting lists, Peter Enrich, a law professor at Northeastern who oversaw this survey said, “The reasons are complex. A lot of them come back to money. The funding of vocational schools is largely the responsibility of the state. They use a formula that has a couple of big problems with it. [The] first problem is, in our view, it underestimates the cost of vocational education, and so the schools are short of money to start with. The second problem is, to determine how much money a school gets, they look at its enrollment in the previous year. So, if you had a waiting list last year, you’re going to get funded based on how many students you had in the school. [It] pays no attention to your waiting lists, so you’re going to have exactly the same problem year after year after year — there’s no allowance for growth in the funding formula.”

While the overall size of the manufacturing sector here in the Commonwealth declined significantly over the past several decades, the industry is currently undergoing a resurgence and, while numbers may never again reach those of the heyday of the past, there is certainly no shortage of successful manufacturing companies now doing business in Massachusetts. Most that made it through (or opened their business after) the “dark times” maintain their competitive edge by staying agile enough to quickly adapt to changing market demands.  Others survived simply by doing what they have always done – providing their stable client base with a list of standard products that are unlikely to be replaced by a better alternative anytime soon. In either case, many companies have successfully leveraged growth opportunity here in Massachusetts, and a qualified pool of local labor is a critical component in the success or failure of that effort.

Solutions may be more complicated than just opening more vocational schools. With the loss of so many skilled positions in the past, societal stigmas have caused apathy among baby boomers and the following generations. However, most Massachusetts’ manufacturing jobs today are high-paying, highly technical positions and, with 100,000 of these opportunities estimated to become available in the state over the next ten years, training the next generation of students will become even more critical to compete in the global economy.

It is imperative that state politicians team up with vocational school administrators and local industry leaders to find a solution to the growing skilled worker shortage before it’s too late.

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