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April 11, 2016

Vocational education key to workforce

File Timothy P. Murray, President and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.

As the president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, I am often asked what is the biggest issue that we hear about from our 2,300 members. While concerns like health care and energy costs, taxes and burdensome regulations are often raised, by far the single biggest issue raised is the need for a trained, motivated and educated workforce.

The chamber has undertaken a multi-pronged approach to expand the workforce pipeline in Central Mass. One of those initiatives has centered around the vocational-technical schools, established under Massachusetts Chapter 74, that serve our chamber's region of 35 cities and towns.

In 2014, the chamber convened the statewide Voke/Tech and Agricultural Schools Summit at the DCU Center with the Mass Association of Vocational School Administrators (MAVA). Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a long-time supporter of voke/tech education was our keynote speaker. Through panels and presentations, we helped make the case to legislators and municipal and school officials why investment in voke/tech is critical for students and employers.

In 2015, the chamber was the lead business organization that helped to form the statewide Alliance for Vocational Technical Education (AVTE) in partnership with MAVA and the Massachusetts Communities Action Network (MCAN). As the co-chair of this effort, I am encouraged the coalition has grown to more than 23 organizations. The AVTE's primary mission is to ensure every child has access to high-quality career, vocational and technical education. A particular focus is to eliminate the annual waiting list of students seeking to attend voke/tech schools, estimated statewide at 3,500 students annually.

Also in 2015, AVTE hired respected researcher and economist Barry Bluestone of Northeastern University's Dukakis Center to conduct an in-depth study of Massachusetts' voke/tech education system. This study included a comprehensive survey of employers across the state. Of the responding employers, 90 percent indicated a need to increase the number of voke/tech graduates. The AVTE briefed the Baker Administration on these results. Subsequently, Gov. Charlie Baker joined the AVTE for the roll out of the Bluestone/AVTE study and announced his administration was proposing a five-year, $75-million capital program to ensure voke/tech students are trained on state-of-the-art equipment. Additionally, AVTE conducted a State House advocacy day to meet with legislators to enlist their support for adequate funding in the fiscal 2017 budget under deliberation on Beacon Hill.

AVTE believes our voke/tech and agricultural schools could eliminate waiting lists by operating 18 hours a day and during summers. They could play a more significant role in worker retraining efforts in coordination with regional employment boards and our statewide community college system. Our students want meaningful careers, and Massachusetts employers need more employees to fill good paying jobs. AVTE knows we can meet both of these objectives by expanding access to our voke/tech programs, and we will work toward making Massachusetts a more desirable place for employers to grow good jobs.

Timothy P. Murray is president and CEO and of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.

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