Tim Johnson: Why career and technical education is critical for Louisiana

The construction industry will need almost 2 million new skilled craft professionals in the United States by 2025.

As the last of the baby boomers begin to retire, the industry will be losing more than just their numbers. It will be losing the skills and experience these individuals have developed over their working years.

This issue is particularly important in Louisiana where billions of dollars of industrial development are still in front of us. So how do we capture the hearts and minds and talents of young people and convince them (and their parents) that construction offers more than just a job on a project; it offers a great career in a critically important industry?

For too many years in the United States, we created and maintained a culture that said one could only be truly successful if they received their education and training at a four-year university.

While we should never discourage anyone from attending LSU, Southern, Southeastern, or any other great university in Louisiana, we must recognize that this “college for all” approach was and is in total misalignment with the needs of the actual job market.

Seventy percent of the jobs in the U.S. economy require something less than a four-year college degree to access them. That figure is actually a little higher in Louisiana’s economy. Remember the “1-2-7 ratio.” To support the work of every advanced degree in our economy, two four-year degrees and seven individuals with something less than a four-year degree are required.

But here’s the deal: In today’s economy, only a small percentage of those seven jobs that require less than a four-year degree can be accessed without additional education after high school, either with a two-year associate degree or an industry-based certification.

Think about the value of a skilled craft professional. If your home air conditioner goes out in August, is the skilled HVAC technician that repairs it any less valuable to you and to the economy in general than your accountant?

I say no. But because the accountant gets his education at the university and the HVAC tech gets her education at a technical school, we have traditionally viewed them differently. Why?

The good news is that career and technical education (CTE, formerly known as vo-tech) is making a comeback. Programs that were dropped in the 70s, 80s, and 90s as secondary education pushed all students toward universities are being re-started.

Every state in the U.S. is doing something to re-invent CTE. In Louisiana, JumpStart was launched in 2014 and focused high school training programs on credit toward two-year associate degrees and industry-based certifications in high wage high demand job fields in each region of the state. JumpStart 2.0 will do more to remove the stigma around these great career opportunities.

State Superintendent John White and his team deserve a lot of credit.  Louisiana is among the leading states in CTE innovation.

Construction needs the best and the brightest. Construction needs critical thinkers and problem solvers. A really good pipefitter can do as much math in his or her workday as most engineers will do, and we need those calculations to be no less accurate.

We need to do more to encourage young people in Louisiana to pursue careers in construction. They pay high wages and need highly skilled professionals.

Organizations like NCCER (The National Center for Construction Education and Research); Associated Builders and Contractors Training Centers in Lake Charles, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans; the Louisiana Community and Technical College System; and many of our state’s high schools are doing a great job of preparing our state’s young people (and older people too) for these rewarding careers.

Check out NCCER’s Build Your Future website at byf.org.  Construction is the bedrock of our economy and the skilled craft professional makes it all go.

INDUSTRY CONNECTIONS author Tim Johnson is president of the TJC Group and host of the Louisiana Business and Industry Show on TV and radio.