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Industry partnerships support vocational education

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MESA – Demonstrating his knowledge of electrical circuits, Jacob Gerken, a Queen Creek High School senior, deftly connects wires to make a light bulb glow.

Inspired by his father’s air conditioning business, Gerken is taking part in the first heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) class offered at East Valley Institute of Technology’s Mesa campus.

Though he plans to pursue a business degree after graduation, Gerken is already putting his skills to work at his dad’s company.

“When we get an AC call I can help diagnose what the problem is, figure out ways to fix it or change compressors or fan motors,” Gerken said. “I’m just learning all the science behind it right now. It’s pretty fun.”

The HVAC program is the newest offered on the sprawling campus, where about 3,200 students take classes.

EVIT is one of 13 joint technical education districts (JTEDs) in the state. School districts vote whether to join one in their area, and property owners in participating districts pay a tax equivalent to $5 for a property valued at $100,000 to help fund the programs. The state allocates tax money to JTEDs based on enrollment figures.

JTEDs haven’t been immune to budget cuts. Last year lawmakers cut $29 million in funding for these districts, passing a budget that dropped funding for ninth grade vocational programs.

At the same time, some industries are telling JTEDs they can’t find workers with the right skills. That has JTEDs finding creative ways to afford keeping up with rapidly changing technology and employer needs, including partnerships with businesses and, in one case, a bond proposition.

Sally Downey, EVIT’s superintendent and CEO, said the HVAC program was made possible by industry support. When EVIT called in the Valley’s big heating and air contractors and discussed their employment needs, Downey learned that many were unable to find skilled workers.

She proposed these companies work with EVIT to design a program to teach kids the skills they would need. Then she dropped the big question: What kind of skin were these companies willing to put in the game?

“I haven’t bought one thing for that program. Everything has been donated,” Downey said. “It’s all about partnerships. Partnerships. You never can bank on state dollars.”

Dennis Hoffman, an economics professor at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, said some businesses aren’t financially able to provide as much training as in the past and face a skills gap in prospective employees.

“You have to confront all of this in an environment we’re the public seems to be increasingly convinced that schools need to do more with less,” Hoffman said.

Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal said that while he wants the Legislature to restore funding for technical education the cuts have forced JTEDs to think about funding in innovative ways.

“It has made it a challenge to operate, but at the same time it has forced us to re-think everything,” he said.

At Pima County JTED, which lost 52 percent of funding following fiscal 2011 budget cuts, budget limitations have led to layoffs, fewer classes and fewer students, with a drop in enrollment from 23,000 in 2010 to 15,000 now.

Fewer students also means even less funding going forward, since enrollment affects how much money districts get from the state.

“There are some legislators in Phoenix who do not see the need for career and technical education and see absolutely no reason we should be spending money on these programs,” said Alan Storm, the district’s superintendent. “The people of Phoenix have no idea what they did and the long-term impact of this.”

Storm said some programs in demand from employers, such as training for computer numerical control (CNC) machinists, cost too much for Pima’s budget to support.

But Pima County JTED soon will roll out a pilot mining program in conjunction with Freeport McMoRan, he said.

Maricopa Education Center (West-MEC), which serves about 23,000 West Valley students at its central campus and satellite programs, is asking voters to approve a bond measure in November that would raise $74.9 million. The money would fund new facilities, purchase new equipment and technology infrastructure and renovate buildings.

Gregory Donovan, West-MEC’s superintendent, said that because the state has spent the last few decades depleting funding from technical education, it takes a lot of investment to build program offerings back up.

“For the last 25 to 30 years we did not put much emphasis on a highly skilled technical workforce. The emphasis was put on college education,” Donovan said.

Donovan said West-MEC faced a 41 percent budget cut in 2011, when lawmakers stopped funding career and technical programs for freshmen. The bond would allow it a way to expand into new areas.

“For us it’s very important for our future and helping the economic vitality of these young people who are enrolled in high school today,” Donovan said. “There is no doubt that our workforce of tomorrow needs to be technically competent.”

At EVIT, Sally Downey said collaboration with the business community can lead to budget solutions as well as helping JTEDs stay on the cutting edge of technology and skills employers need.

“We’ve gone to business and industry because they want our product so badly, and if we deliver a product that gives them a return on their investment, they’ll give us everything,” Downey said. “You don’t have to whine and cry about not getting money, but you have to be good at what you do.”