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California spending millions to address skilled-labor shortage

The boating industry, like most, is experiencing a vast shortage of skilled laborers in the service and manufacturing sectors. (Shown here is a worker at the Viking Yachts plant in New Jersey.) California is spending millions to rebrand the vocational trades.

The boating industry, like most, is experiencing a vast shortage of skilled laborers in the service and manufacturing sectors. (Shown here is a worker at the Viking Yachts plant in New Jersey.) California is spending millions to rebrand the vocational trades.

In light of a growing skilled-labor shortage across the country, California is spending $6 million on a campaign designed to improve the reputation of vocational education and another $200 million to improve the delivery of it.

“It’s a cultural rebuild,” Randy Emery, a welding instructor at the College of the Sequoias in the state’s Central Valley, told PBS.

Standing in a cavernous teaching lab full of industrial equipment on the college’s Tulare campus, Emery said the decades-long national push for high school graduates to get bachelor’s degrees left vocational programs with an image problem and the nation’s factories with far fewer skilled workers than needed.

“I’m a survivor of that teardown mode of the ’70s and ’80s, that college-for-all thing,” Emery told the network.

In California’s community colleges, the share of students taking vocational courses has dropped from 31 percent to 28 percent since 2000, contributing to a shortage of trained workers with more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree.

Research by the state’s 114-campus community college system showed that families and employers didn’t know of the existence or value of vocational programs and the certifications they confer — many of which can add tens of thousands of dollars a year to a graduate’s income.

“We needed to do a better job getting the word out,” said Van Ton-Quinlivan, the system’s vice chancellor for workforce and economic development.

This isn’t news to the boating industry, which has reached a near-crisis level shortage of skilled labor.

The Marine Retailers Association of the Americas announced at the Marine Dealer Conference and Expo that it has partnered with the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association to address workforce issues.

RIMTA and its executive director, Wendy Mackie, have been trying to change the image of skilled labor and help to educate young people about the opportunities that exist for well-paying jobs in the boating industry.

The MRAA and RIMTA are developing an industrywide initiative that addresses the growing workforce problem, said MRAA president Matt Gruhn at the conference.

Customers now face long waits at dealerships for service and repairs on boats and engines, Gruhn said. That leads to frustration and people leaving the recreation.

RIMTA is building a business plan, and the MRAA expects to roll it out early this year.

Making vocational education more appealing is an uphill battle, according to many who have been working to address the issue. High schools and colleges have struggled for decades to attract students to job-oriented classes ranging from welding to nursing, PBS said.

They’ve tried cosmetic changes, such as rebranding “vocational” courses as “career and technical education,” but students and their families have yet to buy in, said Andrew Hanson, a senior research analyst with Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Federal figures show that in 2011-12 only 8 percent of undergraduates were enrolled in certificate programs, which tend to be vocationally oriented.

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