Joined by Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the Democratic Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) met with career and technical education (CTE) students, teachers and leaders from throughout the state Friday for a forum at New England Institute of Technology’s East Greenwich campus to discuss efforts to create quality job opportunities in high-growth fields such as engineering, health care and information technology.
The discussion was organized with Executive Director Josh Klemp of SkillsUSA Rhode Island, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve training of high school and college students for technical, skilled and service occupations.
At the event, Hoyer and Langevin expressed the critical role CTE plays in closing the skills gap that has held back economic recovery, as Langevin said employers frequently tell him they are unable to find qualified workers for available jobs despite high unemployment rates.
“We need to be making sure that students enter the workforce ready,” Langevin said to the assembly of about 40. “Career and technical education produces college- and career-ready students who have been prepared both academically and with real world experience to succeed in high-wage, high-skilled and high-demand careers.”
However, said Langevin, CTE teachers and administrators aren’t able do their job unless they have proper resources for students and the opportunity to collaborate with local businesses. In fact, due to recent cutbacks, they have been forced to make vital sacrifices.
“We need to engage with leaders in CTE to make our education and employment training opportunities as effective as possible,” Langevin said.
Hoyer agreed and further stressed the importance of creating products in the United States in order to be successful not only as individuals but as a nation.
“America is the most productive nation on earth and we are the center of invention, innovation and development,” he said. “If we’re going to ‘make it’ in America, we are going to have to have the skills to create products in America.”
Local students want to do just that. Hannah Schram, 16, of the Cranston Career and Technical Center, is studying robotics/pre-engineering and said the program is helping her “get ahead of the game.”
“I hope to be an astronaut when I’m older and I think of this as a jumpstart,” she said to the assembly. “I love everything about the program.”
Ashley Osborne, 16, a student at the Warwick Career and Technical Center studying carpentry, plans to use the skills she’s learning to defend the United States, as she said she would enlist in the Air Force as soon as she graduates in 2014.
As far as the forum is concerned, Osborne said, “I found it very motivational.”
Linsey Covington, 16, of East Providence Career and Technical High School studying graphic communications, felt the same.
“It was very inspirational because it showed that through our career and technical program, we can succeed in our future,” she said.
Michael Jimenez, 14, said he’s loving every minute of the pastry arts program at the Career and Technical Academy in Providence.
“I hope to take these skills with me to college and get a degree so I can be one of those people on Top Chef or Hell’s Kitchen,” he told the congressman.
Other students, including Cindy Pavio, 16, of the Newport Area Career and Technical Center and Alexa Laing, 15, of Chariho Career and Technical Center, who are both training in cosmetology, said they feel the program ensures them jobs post-graduation.
For culinary arts student Brittney Plante, 17, of Woonsocket Area Career and Technical Center and health occupations student Alex St. Pierre, 16, of the Regional Career and Technical Center at Coventry High School, being part of the forum was an event in itself.
“I’ve never been to this type of event before and it was amazing to see everyone come together,” said Plante, while St. Pierre said, “Even though we’re only in high school, we still have a voice in something that is going on in Congress. That’s really meaningful to me.”
Dana Marcotte, 19, a student at the University of Connecticut, is a recent graduate of the Cranston Career and Technical Center, along with Kayla Benoit, 18, a student at Rhode Island College who studied biotechnology at Davies Tech in Lincoln. Both said the program helped them prepare for a higher education.
“I think career and technical education is great,” Marcotte said. “I really wanted to go into the medical field and being in the career and technical education helped me know I want to be a pediatrician.”
While Benoit is yet to declare a major, she said, “Being in career and technical education helped me learn how to study. If I want to do something, I can still work in a lab or with CSI. It will help me in the long run.”
Students weren’t the only ones with opinions. Vanessa Cooley, coordinator of the Office of Adult and Career and Technical Education for the Rhode Island Department of Education, as well as Lori Ferguson, director of the Regional Career and Technical Center in Coventry, spoke in favor of the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which provides funding that prepares more than 14 million students and displaced workers by giving them access to the most current technology, equipment and training.
“We really need to make sure that we attempt to get more money for our state,” Cooley said at the forum. “We’re a small state – we get among the fewest dollars, as does Maryland, because of our size, but we have to do everything that every state has to do with a very limited budget.”
Ferguson continued Cooley’s point and noted that it is vital for programs to be as up-to-date as possible. She also said she has a few issues with the reauthorization.
In fact, Ferguson said having schools compete for the funds isn’t beneficial for everyone. Instead, she offered an alternative.
“Offer incentives for partnerships so maybe grants could be awarded to secondary schools that work with post-secondary schools, rather than competing for the funds,” she said. “That makes much more sense. We all need the money to keep the centers going. It’s obvious the career and technical centers are important to our students. We really need to prepare our students as early as possible so they are much more prepared for college and the work force.”
Langevin agreed. As co-chair of the Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus, he has spearheaded a bipartisan effort with more than 60 colleagues across the political spectrum to restore Perkins funding levels after federal cuts the past two years.