We just celebrated Labor Day, a chance to recognize the importance of workers and reflect on the future of our workforce during changing times. One of the realities we must face is that good jobs are going unfilled and companies are moving jobs elsewhere because of the skills gap. That is particularly true here in Ohio, where we have a lot of manufacturing jobs and other sectors of our economy—from information technology to bioscience—that require skilled workers. These jobs provide good pay and benefits to workers and are key to driving our economy.
According to OhioMeansJobs.com, there are more than 160,000 jobs available in Ohio right now, and yet, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports more than 300,000 Ohioans are out of work. A lot of that gap is because employers are looking to hire people with skills they can’t find. Businesses across the state are looking to hire workers, but they are looking for people with the right skills and qualifications.
The good news is that we know something that works to develop skills and help close this gap. Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs can give young Ohioans the professional skills and exposure to workplaces they need to get good jobs—and can help grow our economy. CTE is the successor to what was known as vocational education, but it is more connected than ever to actual job opportunities in the area and the skills needed for employment. In the most innovative programs I’ve seen, college credit is offered and CTE students are able to get actual work experience through internships and other programs.
I recently met with the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network in Cleveland and talked with Northeast Ohio employers about ways to help fill their vacant positions. They all agreed that expanding CTE programs was key—in both helping to create more CTE opportunities and connecting skilled Ohioans to available jobs.
Because of my interest in promoting CTE, I co-founded and now co-chair the Senate Career and Technical Education Caucus. First, it was just Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) and me—now we have 27 Senators involved in this effort. We need to increase awareness of CTE programs as an education option, get students interested in career training, and provide the resources and opportunities to connect them to skilled jobs with good pay and benefits.
This year, I introduced the bipartisan CTE Excellence and Equity Act. This bill would expand access to high-quality CTE programs that provide college credit, workforce experience, and apprenticeship opportunities for high school students.
As I visit CTE programs in Ohio, I hear from students who are happy they chose this path. Many tell me that they didn’t click with the standard high school curriculum, but they really found their niche with a more hands-on CTE program. In these programs, they get to develop professional skills and learn about subjects they truly enjoy. Many have participated in an internship, co-op, or apprenticeship at a company where they get real world experience that helps them decide the career track they might pursue. These CTE programs spark students’ interests and equip them with the tools to help get good jobs. This is why I want to see the expansion of good CTE programs all across the state.
My bipartisan JOBS Act will allow students enrolled in CTE training programs to receive federal funding in the form of Pell Grants. This will help low-income and working students get money to pay for career training—funding currently reserved for more traditional college programs. I believe students in CTE programs should have opportunities and resources similar to those who choose to go to college.
Every time I meet with those enrolled in CTE programs, I am reassured that these programs work. Whether it’s at my recent visits to the Tolles Center in Central Ohio or Max Hayes High School in Cleveland—or having the students from Pickaway-Ross in Chillicothe visit my Washington D.C. office—the impressive CTE students and facilities I see and the enthusiasm I hear continues to strengthen my commitment to this cause.
On Labor Day, we rightly recognized the importance of Ohio workers. Let’s also think about how to best prepare the next generation of workers for success. I will continue the fight in Washington to expand CTE opportunities to help close the skills gap, giving young people the tools they need to succeed and helping create good paying jobs and a better economy for all of us.
Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.