WORCESTER – Gov. Charlie Baker toured a “three-shift” vocational program at Worcester Technical High School Wednesday night that he and his administration are waging could be a solution to the state’s workforce gap in the near future.
Baker’s visit to the school came three weeks after he announced the creation of the Career Technical Initiative, a new effort by his administration to train 20,000 skilled trades workers over the next four years. The governor included $15 million in his fiscal 2021 budget released last month to launch the program.
Central to the initiative is a multi-tier approach to training workers at vocational schools. Students at those schools will still have their usual school day, but at 2 p.m., students from other non-vocational high schools will arrive to take classes until 5 p.m., followed by a four-hour block of night classes for adult students.
Worcester Tech adopted that model last year when it revived its night adult education program, quickly building its catalog to 70 courses in total. Three years ago, the school also began an after-hours technical training program at the school that now buses hundreds of students from other high schools in the system to Worcester Tech two afternoons a week.
“If we get the Legislature to engage this, we could replicate models like this all over the commonwealth,” Baker said after touring Worcester Tech’s night HVAC and plumbing programs and having a roundtable discussion with several adult education students. “It fits perfectly with this initiative we’ve been talking with the folks in the Legislature about.”
The goal is to quickly fill an expected rise in supply of skilled trades jobs across the state, all while vocational schools continue to be challenged to meet high demand for their regular school-day programs. Worcester Tech, for instance, has a waiting list of around 400 students.
By offering technical training after school hours, the hope is that students like Jesse Sargent, a 34-year-old from Charlton who participated in Wednesday night’s roundtable, can more easily obtain the certification they need to advance their careers.
“You get older, and your priorities change,” said Sargent, a former drummer in a metal band. “I couldn’t really support a family (doing that).”
Already making good money working in HVAC, Sargent is training in Worcester Tech’s night plumbing program – an opportunity he wished he had earlier in his life.
“I wish I could’ve gone to a technical high school,” he said. “I’d have been a master plumber running my own company for years now.”
Jesse Kerzwick, a 26-year-old who went to school in Douglas and Natick, said the promise of the programs at Worcester Tech – he’s also in the plumbing program – is security.
“The benefit at the end of it all, to be stable, to have your license – you’re all set,” he said.
Local school officials – including at Quinsigamond Community College, which has partnered with the city schools on some programs at Worcester Tech – now hope to expand their offerings, although to do so will take more funding, according to Superintendent Maureen Binienda.
Specifically, the district needs money for more staff and the expensive teaching equipment Worcester Tech’s vocational programs use.
In Central Massachusetts, at least, there should be plenty of demand for skilled workers, especially as construction and related industries stay active, said QCC president Luis Pedraja.
“I think in Worcester it is doable,” he said, of the governor’s goal. “There’s demand in the workforce — there’s a lot of people who want to be able to expand their career options.”