Governor Baker may seek new funds for vocational education

By David Scharfenberg, Globe staff

State Education Secretary Jim Peyser suggested Tuesday that the Baker administration will seek new state funding for vocational education.

“We’re certainly planning on investing new resources,” Peyser told reporters, after joining Governor Charlie Baker and two other Cabinet secretaries for a job training announcement at online retailer Amazon’s Kendall Square offices in Cambridge.

Baker, who took office in January, has suggested that improving vocational education will be a centerpiece of his economic development agenda.

He has cast the push as part of a larger effort to close the so-called “skills gap,” the distance between the needs of Massachusetts employers and the talents of the state’s workforce.

At Amazon, the governor announced a first set of recommendations for addressing the problem from his Workforce Skills Cabinet, a collaborative effort by Peyser, Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash, and Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Ronald L. Walker II, who chairs the effort.

In addition to calling for expanded access to “high-quality” vocational education, the Cabinet also announced the creation of the Governor’s BizWorks Team, a collection of executive-level staff from the three secretariats — education, housing, and economic development, and labor and workforce development — that will serve as a contact point for businesses looking to move to, or expand in, Massachusetts.

The group also announced a third initiative: the launch of a regional planning process designed to get education, business, and labor leaders collaborating on the development of the worker skills required in their particular corner of the state.

Baker said the state needs to be “more of a demand-driven and customer-centric supporter for businesses and industries that are looking to grow here in the Commonwealth.”

The governor held the event at Amazon to highlight what he said was the potential of collaboration between the state and business.

Braden Cox, director of US public policy for Amazon, used the event to announce that the company had completed the land transaction for a long-anticipated 1 million square-foot fulfillment center in Fall River and Freetown.

Construction has already begun on the project. Amazon promised to create 500 jobs at the center when it accepted $3.25 million in tax breaks from the state in March.

Baker is one of many politicians at the state and national level who have made closing the skills gap a top priority. But several prominent economists including New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and former US treasury secretary Larry Summers have argued that the problem is overblown.

A Boston Consulting Group report from 2013 found that the country is short just 80,000 to 100,000 highly skilled manufacturing workers. That’s less than 8 percent of its highly skilled manufacturing workforce and less than 1 percent of the manufacturing workforce overall.

But other researchers argue the skills gap is a problem. A recent report from Northeastern University said an already strained vocational education system, unless expanded, will be unable to train enough people to fill upcoming vacancies in health care, manufacturing, and other key industries.

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