Archive for Sunday, October 1, 2006

Neglecting our future?

Technical education is key to the economy of Kansas, but many say it’s not getting its due

October 1, 2006


— In Kansas, four out of five jobs require training beyond high school but not a full four-year degree.

In western Kansas, the beef industry relies on diesel engine mechanics and refrigeration specialists.

Wichita's aircraft industry requires mechanics.

And the influx of military into Fort Riley has driven up the need for skilled construction workers. And hundreds of workers seek retraining every year.

Much of the instruction for these fields falls to the 16 state vocational schools, technical schools and technical colleges.

They are the hidden engines of the Kansas economy, officials say, and they need a tune-up.

"They don't have Division I football teams, they don't have huge alumni associations, so, in my opinion, they are neglected in the appropriations process," said House Democratic Leader Dennis McKinney of Greensburg.

"Right now, it is probably the most critical piece of education fitting into the economy," he said.

Image problem

Mark Higgins, 15, a sophomore at Perry-Lecompton High School, throws some sparks as he practices welding last week at school. Many high school graduates will opt for vocational training over a traditional four-year college education, and the state has become highly dependent on this corps of technical professionals.

Mark Higgins, 15, a sophomore at Perry-Lecompton High School, throws some sparks as he practices welding last week at school. Many high school graduates will opt for vocational training over a traditional four-year college education, and the state has become highly dependent on this corps of technical professionals.

Currently, a number of state leaders are studying the mission of the schools, how they are funded and whether there should be changes in how they are run. It will be a major issue for the next governor, whether that be Kathleen Sebelius, the incumbent Democrat seeking re-election, or Jim Barnett, the Republican challenger.

But people involved in vocational and technical education, say the highest hurdle they must clear is one of image.

"The biggest challenge we face is changing the perception that this is a substandard field," said Wayne Ledbetter, career coordinator at the Perry-Lecompton School District.

Some of the district's students attend the Kaw Area Technical School in Topeka, and others participate in a program that teaches construction skills and allows students to work on sites for pay.

Ledbetter is all for students going to college, but he notes that there are good-paying, highly skilled employment opportunities out there that don't require a four-year degree.

The average wage for a technical school or technical college graduate is $32,440 per year. More than 90 percent of the graduates of these schools stay in Kansas, according to state statistics.

Another problem for the school is funding, officials say.

"The problem is not our capability," said Robert Edleston, president of the Manhattan Area Technical College. "The problem is capacity. We are packed to the hilt."

Edleston says his school has 350 people on a waiting list to get nursing instruction. And the schools get only a little assistance from the state for building expansion.

"What we're hoping to get out of this is for people to recognize how desperately technical education is needed for this state and, perhaps, to help us structurally be sounder and more recognized for the value that we have," he said.

About this series

The Kansas Crossroads series gets past the hot-button issues and focuses on important matters that will require tough decisions to move the state forward. The Journal-World, 6News and World Online will present these issues to readers and call on the major party gubernatorial candidates - Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, and state Sen. Jim Barnett, a Republican - to address them before the Nov. 7 election.

In past weeks, the Crossroads series has covered the status of school funding, the impasse over paying for repairs and renovations at Kansas University and other institutions of higher education, and problems in the public employee retirement system. This week, we look at the status of state technical schools. These and other issues will affect tax rates, personal income and the quality of life in Kansas for generations.

More election stories can be found at Election 2006.

Program hodgepodge

The schools started in the mid-1960s as part of federal legislation to start a system of teaching trades. Kansas now operates 16 institutions; six are run by community college boards, five are run by local school districts, and five have their own boards.

The 10 schools not aligned with community colleges receive about $29 million per year and have approximately 7,000 students. Regents officials couldn't separate out the statistics for students at community colleges taking technical classes.

The schools are funded through state assistance and tuition.

"Right now, we have a hodgepodge of institutions," said Kansas Board of Regents president and chief executive office Reggie Robinson.

That leads to an inconsistency in the length of some programs.

For example, one technical institution automotive collision repair program takes 2,800 clock hours to get a technical certificate, while another's program takes 1,080 hours for the same certificate, according to a regents study, which didn't name the institutions.

Attention now on trades

When higher education reforms were adopted in 1999, coordination and supervision of the technical colleges, area vocational schools, and area vocational-technical schools were transferred from the State Department of Education to the regents.

But Robinson said the focus of the education reform debate was mostly on the regents institutions.

Now a few years down the road, Robinson said it is time for policymakers to turn their attention to the technical schools.

Some recent suggested changes have included establishing a statewide technical college office to increase coordination between the various schools. School officials have recommended a statewide tax that could be dedicated to supporting the institutions. But nothing has been agreed upon yet.

Welcome scrutiny

For their part, the schools aren't afraid of the attention.

The Kansas Assn. of Technical Schools and Colleges issued a report saying it saw the need for statewide strategic planning for career and technical education and marketing, and a statewide funding formula that addresses the different costs in providing technical education.

But the association said the schools should continue control in setting tuition and fees.

McKinney said part of the problem is a lack of funding.

"We tend to try to come up with every reason that something is not working except lack of funding," he said.

And McKinney said the schools have been neglected because politicians gravitate toward more high-profile higher education issues

"If this had been something in bioscience in the regents universities, we would've met this need a long time ago,

"But educating people for high-skilled jobs in the aircraft industry is not nearly as sexy. Technical schools don't have a lot of clout, but the economy is forcing this on our agenda," he said.


Richard Heckler 11 years, 7 months ago

There are plenty of individuals who may be college material however would rather be an electrician,plumber or manage websites which to those people and marketing skills are somewhat common knowledge. Some how to run a specific business are tossed in the mix.

Uncle_Salty 11 years, 7 months ago

I think there are numerous problems with all technical schools.

One of the biggest problems is the lack of promotion of vo-techs in our high schools. Trade schools are not given equal footing by counselors, administrators, the Board of Regents, or the NCLB legislation. We, as a society, seem to have made the conclusion that college is and should be the only goal of the high school student.

Having people available to think up the product, design the product, finance the product, market the product, and sell the product are required.

But you still have to have people with enough skill to build the product.

johngalt 11 years, 7 months ago

So should the techncial schools get money instead of the 4-year schools?

cowboy 11 years, 7 months ago

I think a comprehensive vo-tech in douglas county would be one of the best economic generators we could develop. Its tough on young people to have to depend on kc or topeka area training. The cost to commute and the time lost getting back and forth makes having a job nearly impossible not to mention the cost.

If you look at lawrence Im guessing you have 30,000 students and 30,000 working adults and each tear we are putting 3-4000 hs dropouts and graduates into the job mix. There are no programs here for the non college bound kids not to mention adult retraining needs.

Build it they will come !

moveforward 11 years, 7 months ago

Tech schools are prescription for unemploment. As are many of the rote college degrees offered by bad schools. If you think you will go to school and spend the rest of your life "doing" that job for money you are sadly mistaken. This is exactly the problem this nation, many companies and workers are attempting to solve.

Teach young people how to think, understand and solve problems. The competitive economic advantage is thinking - not doing!

oldgoof 11 years, 7 months ago

What should be the appropriate level of state support?

The state finances over 90% of Technical School education. The state finances about 75% of state university education, and even less at KU.

roger_o_thornhill 11 years, 7 months ago

Figure out who is good at what. Not who can afford to send their kid where.

blessed3x 11 years, 7 months ago

I have an associate's degree from a technical college. In many ways it was more demanding than a 4-year college. We were required to be in class everyday and had a limited number of days we could miss. We were given a limited number of "tardies" and they were strictly enforced. It was treated very much like a job, not an education. My class had 100% placement and all the students (to the best of my knowledge) are still employed in the same field. After starting around $30k/yr, most of us now make around $50k/yr after 7 years on the job. I work in a highly technical field with pretty much unlimited potential for job growth. I am proud of my technical college education.

A 4-year degree is nice, but in my opinion, too many people spend the 4 years partying and many of the graduates that apply with my company are arrogant and seem to have a very poor work ethic. I attribute much of this to the face that my technical school classmates were nearly all what would be classified as "non-traditional" students. Nothing like a taste of the real world to make you appreciate that education and work your backside off at a job.

cowboy 11 years, 7 months ago

certification in a trade skill can have you making more than the average income in lawrence in your first couple of years , who do you fixes your car , repairs your ac , sets up your network at work , builds your home , prints your paper , welds your equipment , basicly keeps your infrastructure working so you can sit around and whine about stuff .

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