Technical schools’ importance, needs put in focus
Topeka In Kansas, four 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 tuneup.
"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.
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.
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 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 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 was time for policymakers to turn their attention to the technical schools.
Some 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.
For their part, the schools aren't afraid of the attention.
The Kansas Association 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 was 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 had 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.