It’s time for vocational schools to get some respect

Mass. employers depend on their graduates and say more must be done to address long wait lists and out-of-date facilities.

By Deborah Halber | The Boston Globe

bGlobeOn a Monday morning in late spring, city buses arrive like clockwork on Malcolm X Boulevard, disgorging students hunched over cellphones, earbud wires trailing down the fronts of hoodies. They file toward Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, where executive director Kevin McCaskill, in a suit and pin-striped shirt with matching pocket square, and two other administrators greet them as if part of a receiving line. “Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!” McCaskill booms at bleary-eyed kids moving as if they are battling a stiff wind.

Among those passing through the metal doors is Reno Guerrero, who emigrated several years ago with his mother, older sister, and younger brother from the Dominican Republic to Dorchester. Guerrero, 19, wears a white T-shirt, jeans, and white socks with soccer sandals. His hair is close-cropped, and a shadow of a beard is shaved to precision points at his temples. Clear stone studs sparkle in each earlobe. He is feeling nervous about his senior presentation on engine repair, the culmination of three years of course work plus intensive training in automotive technology. But the nerves are tempered by excitement. He’s learned he’s been accepted to MassBay Community College, and he already has a job lined up for after graduation at a garage that services Boston’s city-owned vehicles. “Cars, for me, is everything right now,” he says. “It’s what I know how to do, and I’m going to do it for life.”

Guerrero is a success story, but his school, one of the most beleaguered in the state, fits a different stereotype: the vocational school as a place where “you stuck people who had nothing going for them,” says Katherine S. Newman, a social scientist at UMass Amherst. In 2014, Madison Park had a four-year graduation rate of 63 percent (the statewide average is 86), and on the 2015 math MCAS, only 24 percent of its students scored at least proficient (the statewide average is 79). Almost 60 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged, nearly triple the statewide rate, and it has almost double the rate of students with disabilities of the Boston Public Schools overall.

Madison Park’s widely known designation as one of the state’s underperforming schools has obscured what’s happening across the rest of the Commonwealth: rising interest in vocational schooling. Students want into vocational schools for the job opportunities. The Commonwealth’s 55 vocational schools claim some 48,000 students, but more than 3,000 others are wait listed at schools without seats to accommodate them. Massachusetts vocational schools are stretched thin at a time when local employers anticipate the majority of jobs they’ll create in the next few years will be well suited to vocational school grads. Business owners and others fear not enough is being done to address the problem.

“We’re turning away work because we don’t have the people to do it,” says Michael Tamasi, CEO of Avon-based AccuRounds Inc. His company, which makes precision-machined parts for industries, including medicine and aerospace, recruits heavily from the voc-ed schools in southeastern Massachusetts and Greater New Bedford.

“Employers are clamoring for training,” says Barry Bluestone, a professor of public policy at Northeastern University, who has co-authored two recent studies on vocational education in Massachusetts. The October 2015 report, “Meeting the Commonwealth’s Workforce Needs,” analyzed 675 occupations, from journalist to bank teller, and found state employers anticipate having 1.2 million relevant job openings between 2012 and 2022. In the January 2016 report, “The Critical Importance of Vocational Education in the Commonwealth,” 90 percent of employers surveyed wanted a larger pool of vocational-school graduates and nearly the same percentage agreed the schools themselves should have more modern equipment. Of respondents, 75 percent said they prefer to hire voc-ed graduates for entry-level positions and 61 percent for higher-level jobs.

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