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A workforce solution that we could advocate

The industry needs a concerted effort to craft and execute a call for increased spending and priorities on vocational education programs.

It was abundantly clear at the Marine Dealer Conference and Expo this week that workforce shortages are top of mind for the boating industry at all levels. Matt Gruhn, president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, nailed it when he called out the state of affairs that will hinder continued industry growth: “We can’t build boats fast enough, and we can’t service boats fast enough.”

Many of our national and state marine trades associations are attempting to promote interest among young people in working in our industry. Those that are deserve a salute for their initiatives. Meanwhile, a column written for The New York Times and republished in papers across the country has given me a broader perspective on the issue and a suggested action plan. I highlight it today because it’s a viable position our industry could prioritize and vocally emphasize.

Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contends education help is being given to the wrong kids. He compares two graduating high school seniors — one who will go to college and one who won’t.

“To whom does our education system owe what?” he asks. “The second student has done nothing wrong. He probably clawed his way through a standard college-oriented curriculum, though it neither targeted his interests or abilities nor prepared him for workforce success. Yet we celebrate the first student and lavish taxpayer funds on his education.”

Cass points out a shocking truth. Student No. 1 finds a college world in which federal funding has grown 133 percent to an annual $150 billion when combined with tax breaks, loan subsidies and state funding. Student No. 2 gets basically nothing. “Annual funding for a vocational pathway, at both high school and post-secondary levels, totals just $1 billion,” Cass says.

Federal data show that fewer than 1 in 5 students travel the high-school-to-college route. Cass notes that 40 years of so-called education reform, doubling per-pupil spending, has failed to improve the picture. Yes, more students enroll in college, but the share of 25-year-olds with a degree didn’t increase from 1995 to 2015, and it barely tops 1975 levels.

Cass also focuses on a second critical issue — that we’ve been sold the idea that a degree is the key to the “middle class.” However, while the college grad earns more than the median high school grad, they are different people with different academic prospects. “Look instead at the wage distributions for more comparable samples,” Cass says, “those with earnings toward the high end for workers with only high school degrees and those at the low end among college graduates.”

To that end, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that high school grads with above average earnings make $34,000 to $70,000 a year. College grads with below average earnings make $28,000 to $58,000 annually.

So what changes could be advocated to gain the benefits of lifting the non-college pathway? Cass offers a well-reasoned plan to significantly change education thinking and policies.

“For the roughly $100,000 the public spends to carry many students through high school and college today,” Cass writes, “we could offer two years of traditional high school, a third year that splits time between a sophisticated vocational program and a subsidized internship; two more years split between subsidized work and employer-sponsored training; and a savings account with $25,000, perhaps for future training.

“Any American could have, at age 20, three years of work experience, an industry credential and earnings in the bank,” Cass says. And he really hits home when he notes that people will say they support vocational education but that it’s for “someone else’s kids.”

We need educational leaders to recognize that those kids are actually most kids in America today. We seem to emphasize a false promise about success — that college is the only way. That does more harm than good, Cass contends. “We owe them our focus and the best pathway that we can construct.”

We should applaud and support the current efforts by our industry associations to attack the workforce problem. But if we want to continue to grow, we need a more concerted effort, backed by a budget, to craft and execute consistent industry messages that call for increased spending and priorities on vocational education programs. And we need to aim them at all educational agencies — federal, state and local.

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