Career, tech are vital in rural U.S.

I represent one of the most rural districts east of the Mississippi River — Pennsylvania’s 5th — which is home to the Little League World Series, Groundhog Day and the world’s first commercially producing oil well 150 years ago — Drake Well. My district, like much of the commonwealth, has a rich history of energy production, forestry, agriculture and manufacturing. In this ever-increasing global market, it is imperative for today’s workforce to have the skills and technical know-how to maintain a competitive edge, in not only my home state but also our nation as a whole.

 The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act (Perkins) was originally authorized in 1984, and most recently reauthorized in August 2006. Perkins assists in the development of academic and technical skills for students, young and adult, who participate in career and technical education programs (CTE). Perkins supports CTE programs that provide students with the necessary skills and education to place them in the careers of their choice in existing and up-and-coming professions.

The 2006 Perkins Act raised the expectations for students participating in CTE by instituting local accountability requirements for its stakeholders. States and localities have partnered to employ stronger methodologies to improve the achievement of CTE students, in order to fulfill the workforce needs of businesses and employers across the country. Programs are held accountable for student achievement in areas including academic and technical attainment, completion and credential attainment, and placement in further education and careers.

According to the Department of Education, enrollment in CTE programs has increased more than 157 percent from 1999 to 2004. During this time of economic downturn and uncertainty for our neighbors who have had the misfortune of losing their jobs, CTE provides a silver lining to what is a troubling and confusing time for many. There are currently more than 15 million CTE students nationwide and that number continues to grow — especially in the past 18 months as unemployment levels have reached the highest numbers in decades. Nearly one-third of the fastest-growing occupations require an associate’s degree or a postsecondary vocational certificate, making CTE an attractive option for those displaced workers wanting to learn a new skill and trade.

As Congress moves forward with the goal of creating new jobs, we must place a national focus on retooling our workforce in order to remain competitive. We must ensure there are enough workers to fill the technical jobs that will soon be vacated by the retiring baby boomer generation and also to make certain there are enough skilled workers to fill newly created jobs. This will foster real economic growth with realistic and sustainable jobs.

For example, in Pennsylvania and sections of New York, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky, we have discovered possibly the third-largest natural gas deposit in the world in the Marcellus shale play. This exciting new find, which some estimate at 500 trillion cubic feet of gas, will require a trained workforce to man the rigs and drill the wells. And as production ramps up, the thousands of direct and indirect jobs that accompany energy exploration and production will be welcome news to those of us who live in these rural communities.

 The last noteworthy increase in funding for the Perkins Act occurred in fiscal 2002. While the funding stream remains static, equipment and training costs continue to increase alongside a growing number of enrollments nationally. Congress does not have a choice but to make a commitment to assist our citizens with quality training that will, in time, place them in well-paying, high-skilled jobs such as nursing, allied health, construction and engineering.

As Congress gets ready to hastily consider moving further legislation to create green jobs, we must make a push for additional CTE funding and programming. The green job forecasts are at best overly optimistic.

Recent studies have shown that for every green job created, 2.2 other jobs are eliminated. In Spain alone, a country that the president often references as a model for the United States to follow, 9 of 10 green jobs created in the past 10 years no longer exist today.

During these times of fiscal constraint, we should remain good stewards of the taxpayer’s dollar and support the sure and proven track that CTE has established.

As the appropriations process for fiscal 2010 moves forward, Democrats and Republicans alike must make a commitment to go above and beyond when it comes to funding technical education programs under the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. This smart government solution will put us back on track and put America back to work.

Thompson is a vice chairman of the Congressional Rural Caucus and a member of the House Education and Labor Committee.