With meaningful action by the state Legislature, Florida has taken a leadership role preparing its citizens with the skills and pathways they need to succeed in our fast-changing economy.
Job skills and workforce preparedness begins in our public schools — and while there is much work to be done in K-12 schools, Florida has long been a leader in improving and transforming elementary and secondary education.
But in the latest legislative session, lawmakers turned their focus to an area that needed bold action: Ensuring that we help high school graduates and other adults gain the skills they need for good-paying careers.
This is an area where many public education and workforce training programs consistently under-deliver.
College remains a goal, of course. But not everybody goes straight to college after high school. Some want to apprentice. Others just need more time to figure things out. And nearly everyone needs to gain new skills and retrain throughout their career. Nobody can afford to stop learning at age 25.
We need to look at post-secondary education as a highway with multiple on-ramps and off-ramps. For too long, career and technical education — what some still call voc-ed — has been treated as a dead end. Students in such programs were offered classes in low-opportunity and low-paying skills. For example, courses in small engine repair rather than more advanced manufacturing processes.
The Legislature’s efforts in the past session address these weaknesses. Florida’s reformers — namely House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson, as well as Sens. Ben Albritton and Keith Perry, and Reps. Clay Yarborough, Lauren Melo and Jackie Toledo — wrote and passed bills so job-seekers can get the training they need, policymakers can get the economic data they need and everybody is held accountable.
House Bill 1507 puts meaningful support — $100 million — into data collection, analysis and transparency so that everyone can see how the state’s workforce preparedness programs are performing. With a data dashboard, Floridians — job-seekers, educators, college presidents and lawmakers — will all know where the opportunities are, the training options are, and who is succeeding and failing.
The bill also puts an office under the purview of the governor so that everyone involved in workforce preparation — K-12, post-secondary, economic opportunity officers, industry leaders — are pulling together, in the same direction and informed by a common understanding of what skills are most in demand.
And the bill creates real accountability. Rather than extravagantly funding the very same institutions that are falling short right now, Florida’s new law demands that to get access to funding, learning centers need to show that their graduates gain in-demand skills and good-paying jobs.
For example, House Bill 1507 creates a $3,000 per student Open Door grant to help the underemployed or unemployed — people who were recently laid off or furloughed, or had their hours cut — get the skills they need to be credentialed for high-demand occupations. Two-thirds of the $35 million in grant money goes to programs upfront, and the remaining third is sent to the teaching institution only when the student has completed the program — a way to incentivize everyone to focus on finishing.
And to give students a greater incentive to study the skills that are in highest demand, House Bill 1261 creates a buy-one-get-one free support for college students who take an upper level science, technology, engineering or math course. Everyone says we need more STEM-trained students; Florida is putting $25 million behind the effort.
House Bill 1507 also mandates that audits of career and technical education programs keep tabs on what happens to students after they graduate: Do they go on to college or not, do they attain the credentials or certifications they wanted, and most importantly, did they get a job — and if so, how much are they being paid? These are legitimate questions, and for far too long, Florida’s career and technical programs either didn’t know the answers or didn’t have to provide them. Now they do.
Perhaps the greatest reform is the one that is the most revolutionary: A money-back guarantee to students who enroll in public programs focused on certain higher-skill, higher-wage and in-demand occupations. If a student completes the program and is unable to find a job in that field within six months, their tuition will be refunded.
These are good policies. Smart, common-sense, relevant to the workforce and most of all, focused on the job-seekers and workers who have waited too long for the help they need. Florida’s legislators should be congratulated for delivering for their citizens and the state’s economy.
Jeb Bush, Florida governor from 1999-2007, is the founder and chairman of the Foundation for Florida’s Future and the Foundation for Excellence in Education.