As fears of COVID-19 wane, Massachusetts is dealing with issues that emerged after the pandemic. But attention is also focused on some issues exacerbated by the pandemic — like the lack of skilled labor in the state.
Although efforts are being made at all levels to address the problem, vocational education is one avenue that could offer long-term relief.
The Tri-County Regional Technical and Vocational High School in Franklin helps fill the skilled labor gap.
“The growing need for skilled tradespeople in the Commonwealth was becoming evident before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it has undoubtedly been exacerbated over the past two years,” tri-county superintendent-superintendent Karen Maguire said via email.
Tri-County offers students 16 career and technical programs.
“Our programs align with current industry standards and provide our students with the training needed to enter the workforce as competitive, skilled workers,” Maguire said. “The addition of our co-op program, which allows students to work during the school day throughout their senior year, also gives us the opportunity to partner with more than 100 area businesses to create both opportunities for our students to learn about the job and for employers to fill vacancies.
The result has been a strong demand for students.
“We have seen a shift in needs over the past few years – some companies that were hesitant to hire students still in high school a few years ago now understand the importance of what we offer and are lining up to recruit our students.” , Maguire said. “In some programs, we have more employment opportunities than we have students.
Through the State’s Technical Career Initiative, grants have been made available to expand access to vocational training for adults, adding to the pool of candidates who will be trained and ready to enter the labor market. work in areas experiencing labor shortages, the superintendent said.
A CTI planning and implementation grant of $220,000 will allow Tri-County to expand adult training starting this summer, she said.
Southeast Regional Vocational Technical High School in Easton is also working to fill the void with the CTI program.
“Through the CTI Adult Retraining Initiative, Southeastern is working with area employers who cannot find enough qualified people to employ,” Superintendent Luis Lopes said via email. “By working with local employers, we were able to offer 300-hour refresher courses in welding.
“Southeast, along with other vocational schools in Massachusetts, plan to expand CTI offerings at our facilities by offering rapid training programs in high-need industries such as manufacturing, construction trades and food service.”
Employers know firsthand about the shortage of employees.
“It’s definitely a problem,” said Matt Sylvestro, a laborer who operates a hardwood flooring business. “My colleagues and I all share the sentiment. The people I work with are builders, plumbers and electricians. We all have a problem generating a skilled workforce. Those who answer our call for help are either skilled but run their own shop, or have no skills at all. Some can’t even read a tape measure.
According to data from the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, Massachusetts saw 49,000 more unemployed people than pre-pandemic levels. Although the recovery has been steady – with numbers now 11,000 below pre-pandemic levels – some glaring problems remain. Data shows job openings in the state are up 30% from pre-pandemic levels, and many employers are seeing a skills mismatch between available workers and job openings.
In other words, the number of skilled workers entering the field is below what the sectors demand or even require.
Sectors ranging from medical to manufacturing, construction, electrical, cooking, hospitality and even education are unable to find qualified young workers to take over the current workforce , which consists of people close to retirement.
In response, Governor Charlie Baker convened the Workforce Skills Cabinet in 2015. The Executive Offices of Education, Labor and Workforce Development, and Housing and Economic Development collaborated in 2018 and published reports detailing population and workforce trends in different regions.
Vocational schools can be the perfect way for anyone to be exposed to job skills while still completing high school and pursuing the conventional career path. Students also have the opportunity to engage in practical skills such as culinary arts, dental assisting, biotechnology assisting work, or manufacturing.
“We train children in the trade, preparing them to enter the labor market if they wish. If they choose not to, they will still be eligible to go to college,” said Maureen Lynch, superintendent of Whittier Vocational Technical High School in Haverhill. “We all realize that there is an aging workforce and there is plenty of work available.
Based on the reports, the skills cabinet had also listed the healthcare, manufacturing and educational services sectors to prioritize for financial aid.
Since launching the state’s Career Technical Initiative program in 2020, CTI has provided more than $100 million to high schools, vocational schools, and colleges to expand career training.
“There are many more job openings than there are people to access these jobs. What we’re looking at is how we build capacity to prepare people who would like to get a job but don’t have skills,” said Bob Lepage, assistant secretary for career education in the Executive Office of the education. “And that’s tens of thousands in that gap between the two.”
Lepage added that these investments, particularly over the past three years, have been about laying the groundwork, and the challenge now is to build on them and “focus on preparing people.”
More and more parents have chosen to send their children to schools that provide vocational training.
“Vocational education has grown and developed over the past few years,” said Andrew Linkenhoker, principal of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton. “We are seeing increased interest among students and families.”
Linkenhoker noted that the change in trend is beneficial because the alternative would mean a decrease in labor over the next few years, leading to higher prices for even the most basic services.
But increased interest in vocational education is not enough.
Many schools across the state noted that more students wanted to enroll, but did not have the infrastructure or resources to accommodate them. This has resulted in long waiting lists at professional institutes which are struggling to cope with the growing number of applications.
“We had about 2,290 students enrolled last year. We’ve tried to increase those spots somewhat over the past five years, but our waiting list has grown significantly,” said Lisa Martinez, director of technology at Greater Lowell Technical High School in Tyngsboro.
Heidi Riccio, chief executive of the Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School, said the school had received around 1,700 applications for 450 places.
“It’s unfortunate, isn’t it? Because basically people say it’s a good problem to have, but it’s really a horrible problem to have,” Riccio said. “We just can’t meet the need and we should be able to. We are a public school and, as a public entity, we must be able to meet this demand. And right now, there are many vocational schools in the state that just don’t have the buildings to put more kids in them.
In the years to come, Massachusetts will seek to further bridge the gap between a young population that may be willing to learn these skills and institutions that are available to impart the necessary training but do not have the resources to do so.
As Sylvestro summed it up: “There’s a lot of talent out there, but people just aren’t aware of the areas or their own abilities. So if they are exposed to it and have a bit of knowledge under their belt before entering the job, it could be a huge push for a skilled workforce.
Sun Chronicle writer Stephen Peterson contributed to this story.