We have a workforce problem in Missouri. There are thousands of middle-skill jobs that we can’t fill. Companies are reluctant to locate here because they can’t find employees with the skills they need. At the same time, labor participation rates continue to decline. Sadly, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) reported that in 2017, just 42 percent of high school graduates left school college or career ready.
If we had just $10 million to spend on fixing this situation, would it be better to ensure students are career ready before they graduate from high school, or put that money towards those who were part of the 58 percent and have not been successful? To be certain, both are important. But which is the better investment? I think the former.
One of the most high-profile bills in the 2019 legislative session awarded corporate welfare to General Motors. Tacked on to that bill was a measure spending $10 million to create the Fast Track workforce development program. The program will cover tuition for Missourians who are at least 25 years old, make less than $40,000, and want to go back to school to pursue a degree in a “high demand” field. Students are allowed to transfer and can take up to one year off. And when they’re finished, they must remain in the state for three years and be employed full time within twelve months. If students don’t comply with these requirements, the grant will then convert to a loan.
Missouri community college tuition averages $5,750 for in-state students. If a student qualifies for a Pell Grant, most of that cost would be covered. Pell Grants are generally awarded to students with total household incomes below $20,000, which means Fast Track would primarily cover people making between $20,000 and $40,000. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that a typical Fast Track student received a quarter of their funding from the program and finished their program in two years, which is an extremely conservative estimate Under this scenario, the program could serve a maximum of 7,000 students. It’s a lot of money to put toward a complicated program that likely won’t be able to serve many students and may or may not result in a more skilled workforce in Missouri.
What about the first option—improving the career readiness of our students before they leave high school? One proven way to do this is to create financial incentives for career and technical education (CTE) teachers who make sure their students are career ready. These are students who earn an industry-recognized credential (IRC), such as the Automotive Service Excellence credential or the Certified Nursing Assistant credential. At a cost of just $500 per credential-earning student, with some of that going to the district, some to the CTE student, and some to the teacher, $10 million could improve career outcomes for 20,000 Missourians each year. States that have implemented programs like this have seen exponential growth in the number of students who leave high school with an IRC in hand.
Giving CTE teachers an opportunity to earn a few thousand extra dollars each year is a simple and direct way to improve our workforce. Creating a new government bureaucracy to manage a complex new government program very well may not be.