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Rokita Statement: Hearing on “Improving Career and Technical Education to Help Students Succeed in the Workforce”

Young adults are entering a job market today that is vastly different from the one that existed a generation ago. Technological advances and the growth of a global economy have significantly changed the kinds of jobs available and the skills required to do them, making quality education and training vital ingredients to success in today’s workplaces.

This new reality has been painfully evident in the wake of the recent recession. We are more than six years into the so-called recovery, yet millions of Americans continue to struggle with finding a good-paying job. Meanwhile, industries critical to our economy – health care, engineering, and  manufacturing, for example – have jobs to fill and not enough qualified applicants to fill them; a problem we have come to know as “the skills gap.”

Recognizing the urgent need to close the gap and put Americans back to work, Republicans and Democrats came together last Congress to fix a broken and outdated job training system. The bipartisan, bicameral effort resulted in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, a commonsense solution to modernize and improve the federal workforce development system. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act will help workers attain skills for 21st century jobs and cultivate the modern workforce that evolving American businesses need.

But we still have more work to do. By reauthorizing the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, we have an opportunity to help more Americans – especially younger Americans – enter the workforce with the tools and knowledge necessary to compete for the high-skilled, in-demand jobs in our economy. Last reauthorized in 2006, the law provides federal support for state and local programs focused on preparing high school and community college students for technical careers.

Unfortunately, many of these career and technical education programs have not kept pace with the changing workforce. In a report released by the Council for Chief State School officers, education leaders explained, “Career education in too many of our secondary schools reflects an outdated model that tolerates low expectations and is often misaligned with the evolving needs of the current labor market."

With more than 14 percent of young adults unemployed and the highest level of unfilled jobs since 2001, it’s no wonder states have started to take action. My home state of Indiana, for example, is partnering with local businesses to develop a new high school curriculum that better meets the needs of local communities and ensures students are prepared to enter high-skilled jobs right after earning their diploma. As Governor Mike Pence testified at a hearing earlier this year, “For those students who are not bound for the traditional four-year college, we must still ensure that they can thrive in future careers, and one way to do this is to again make career and technical education a priority.”

By working with the private sector to develop resources for successful career and technical education programs, Indiana has made incredible gains over the last two years: The state has helped thousands of hardworking Hoosiers join the workforce and attracted more good-paying jobs for people in our communities. It is our hope the success we’ve experienced in Indiana can be replicated across the country.

The goal at the federal level, and what we are here to discuss today, is to ensure our investment in these state and local efforts is paying off for the students we aim to serve. To help reach that goal, we should consider reforms that encourage states to align high school and postsecondary coursework with the needs of the workforce. This will require a look at existing federal requirements, many of which are duplicative and can hinder state and local efforts to develop and implement successful programs.

Helping Americans compete and succeed in today’s workforce remains one of the committee’s leading priorities, and today’s discussion is an important part of that effort. I look forward to hearing from our panel of witnesses as we work to improve the Perkins Act and strengthen support for young Americans as they enter the workforce.

Before I recognize Ranking Member Fudge, I would like to note that one of our witnesses today, Dr. Douglas Major, is a resident of Stillwater, Oklahoma. On Saturday, the people of Stillwater and the surrounding communities were celebrating Oklahoma State University’s homecoming, when a driver crashed into the homecoming parade. This terrible tragedy injured more than 40 individuals and killed four others.

Dr. Major, on behalf of the committee, I want to extend my deepest sympathies to you, the people of Stillwater, and the entire Oklahoma State University community. We pray for the recovery of those who remain hospitalized and in critical condition, and we lift up in our thoughts and prayers the victims and their families. Thank you for being with us today.