ELLSWORTH, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage reiterated his call for stronger and more visible career and vocational training programs for high school students during a tour Monday of the Hancock County Technical Center.
LePage has said repeatedly during his first year in office that the problem isn’t necessarily that there aren’t enough available jobs in Maine. Instead, the governor said business leaders often tell him they struggle to find people with the proper training to fill open positions.
As part of his effort to close this “skills gap,” LePage has said Maine high schools need to move career and technical education programs out from the proverbial back of the building and into the limelight.
“What we are trying to do is make career and technical education mainstream instead of second-class education,” LePage said in an interview.
LePage said he believes Maine has made a mistake by approaching education as if every student planned to go to college. Skilled trade workers can earn a healthy wage and expanding or re-emphasizing vocational education also could help reduce the state’s high dropout rate, he said.
“Some people make a very good living” working in skilled trades, LePage said.
The governor made the comments after visiting classrooms and talking with administrators, teachers and students at Hancock County Technical Center, one of 27 vocational and technical schools around the state.
The roughly 200 students at the Ellsworth center — who are drawn from eight area high schools — can receive training in trades ranging from law enforcement and early childhood education to carpentry, automotive repair and culinary arts. Statewide, there are more than 8,000 students enrolled in technical or vocational education programs.
The challenge, according to LePage and school administrators, is finding ways to better meld such programs into the traditional high school curriculum while ensuring students can transfer the credits and certifications they earn to the next level.
For instance, center director Amy Boles and RSU 24 Superintendent Suzanne Lukas said some students have been forced to drop out of the technical education programs because they are struggling to meet the state’s general graduation requirements while pursuing a trade at the vocational center.
State Sen. Brian Langley, an Ellsworth Republican and restaurant owner who has taught for more than 25 years at the technical center, told the governor that he believes the state and schools need to have some flexibility and creativity when working with vocational students.
In other instances, students are having trouble transferring credits to community colleges or gaining entrance into high-demand programs. Boles said the certified nursing assistant program is one of the most popular training programs at the center. But many community colleges allocate most spots in their nursing programs to nontraditional students, leaving only a few seats available to graduates from the center’s CNA program.
As a result, many students are forced to take a year off from their nurse training or enter a liberal arts program until they can get into a nursing program, Boles said.
LePage said his administration also wants to make sure technical schools are offering enough general academic programs for students whose high schools are a considerable distance from the vocational programs. That will allow them to spend the entire day at the technical center.
“We can’t keep kids on the roads going between schools,” LePage said. “We have to keep the kids in the classroom. So some of the vocational and technical centers are going to be asked to beef up some of their academic programs.”
He also said Maine’s education system needs to focus more heavily on helping train students interested in going into natural resource-based industries, including forestry and agriculture.
LePage often pairs his talk about more prominent vocational education programs with his proposal to offer students a fifth year of high school to take college preparatory courses or career training. A task force is studying the issue, including the question raised by critics about how the state could afford to expand high school offerings when it struggles to fund existing programs.
After LePage’s visit, Boles said she and others working in the state’s technical education centers are pleased because they feel like the governor is listening and is eager to improve the system. Boles said she had spoken with the governor several times before about the program in Ellsworth and that he had pledged to visit.
“He really is trying to focus on career and technical education, which I’m very excited about,” Boles said.