Advocating for Technical Education on the Hill

By Dennis Pierce

Lanier Tech President Ray Perren recently spoke to Congress about the need for workforce development in manufacturing.

Last month, Ray Perren, president of Lanier Technical College in Oakwood, Georgia, testified before the House Small Business Committee during a hearing titled “The New Faces of American Manufacturing,” which focused on how to best prepare the next generation of U.S. manufacturing workers.

In his testimony, Perren called for a “Sputnik moment” in manufacturing-workforce development and highlighted the reauthorization of the Perkins Act as a key opportunity. He also argued for expanding the Pell Grant program to give students access to financial aid year-round.

Below, Perren reveals what he’s learned about communicating to state and federal policymakers and shares his thoughts on what the Perkins reauthorization might hold for community colleges.

You talk about creating another “Sputnik moment” in manufacturing-workforce development. Why do you think that’s important?

Somewhere along the line, people have gotten the idea that you go into manufacturing if you can’t do anything else. The reality is, you can be a tremendous success by working in manufacturing.

Today’s manufacturing jobs require high-level skills, such as critical thinking. They require someone who understands how the different aspects of a manufacturing environment come together — and that requires training.

For the nation to be successful in rebuilding our manufacturing base, we need to get serious about raising a generation of people who can work in a manufacturing environment.

What are the keys for helping community colleges more effectively support manufacturing-workforce development — and how can Congress help?

Community colleges, and particularly technical colleges, tend to be very in tune with the community. We’re very responsive to business and industry needs. In our case, each one of our programs meets with what we call an industry advisory board twice a year to get a better understanding of what their current needs are and the skill sets they need. The advisory boards look at our curriculum and our lab equipment, and they tell us what we need to do to modify our programs to be more responsive to their needs.

So I think community colleges are very well suited to prepare the manufacturing workforce. In terms of what Congress can do, I think it’s important that our community and technical colleges be well funded. Many technical colleges were established in the 1960s and ’70s, and even though we’ve tried hard to maintain equipment, just owing to the funding we’ve received over the years, it’s hard to stay current with state-of-the-art equipment — particularly as manufacturing has changed significantly over the last 20 years. The jobs that were offshored in the ’80s and ’90s were very manual-intensive, whereas the jobs of today are very technology-intensive — and so the skill sets are totally different. We need equipment to prepare our graduates to be successful in these new workplace environments.

Our education infrastructure is just as important as our transportation infrastructure. We have outstanding transportation in this country; you can get from Georgia to Massachusetts by getting on I-95 and never stopping. We need to have that sort of infrastructure in place for education, where students can get on an education pathway and never stop until they reach their educational goal. This is such a large effort that it really takes a national approach, which is why I’ve called for another Sputnik moment.

What role would a reauthorized Perkins Act play in bringing community colleges and industry partners together to support the development of those career pathways?

Each community and technical college should provide pathways that lead to jobs and careers in their area. And I think it’s important that the Perkins Act be written so that it encourages these local pathways to be developed. Are there some pathways that can be generic across the country? Certainly. But I think it’s more effective if these pathways reflect the local business needs of the community.

How can extending Pell Grants year-round help with these efforts, and specifically at Lanier Tech?

Lanier Tech is a year-round school. Our manufacturers work year-round. They’re looking for graduates all year long; they’re not looking for a big bunch to come out in May, and then another bunch the following May. And so we graduate students three times a year.

Yet, so many of our students are dependent on financial aid — and they can’t afford to sit out the summer. If they do, they’ll get too far behind. It’s important that they have some financial assistance to help them attend during the summer.

During your career, what have you learned about how to communicate effectively with policymakers?

I think it’s important to give them the facts. They’re so busy dealing with so many constituents and issues that, when you communicate with them, you need to stick to the facts. Talk about the local environment and how assistance from Congress helps locally in matters such as workforce development.

Did you get a sense of how your testimony was received?

It’s hard to tell. I had some conversations with several members of the committee after it was over, and I think they listened to me as well as the other participants who testified that day. And I think this committee wants to do something to support education that leads to a stronger manufacturing workforce. What will happen from this point, I don’t know.

Dennis Pierce

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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