After 15 years of decline, shop courses in middle schools and high schools are coming back, thanks to $7.5 million in funding approved by this year's Legislature.
The money, which will be doled out as Career and Technical Education Revitalization grants, will allow up to 50 schools statewide to restore wood shop, metal shop and other trade courses in the coming school year, said state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who is in charge of career education for the state.
Shop classes declined after budget shortfalls in light of property tax limitations passed in the 1990s and because of the No Child Left Behind Act, which forced an emphasis on academics at the expense of shop, arts and physical education, Avakian said in a talk Thursday to Ashland Rotarians.
"We got in a terrible crisis with workforce training in Oregon," he said. "The average age went up to the late 40s to early 50s. We didn't know where we were going to get good skilled workers."
Federal funding for shop disappeared and schools had no incentive to keep it going, he added.
As a result, the average age of apprentices went up from 19 to 28, he said.
The Legislature last year funded enough to fully restore shop in 21 middle or high schools, with an eye to eventual apprenticeships and jobs as electricians, plumbers, welders, cement masons, carpenters and other fields.
The new face of "shop" has greatly changed, Avakian noted, pointing to a high school in Joseph where students are working on computer-assisted design software to control robots. And Silverton students studying for sports medicine careers are learning how to reconstruct knees.
The gender of shop students is also shifting, he added, noting one-third of students at a recent construction career fair in Eugene were female.
Avakian said that in order to win funding for shop, he had to assemble a coalition of business, labor and education people to get the message across to lawmakers.
"He made a huge effort to better the workforce," said Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, who introduced the commissioner. "He took over an organization (Bureau of Labor and Industries, in 2008) whose culture was incredibly anti-business and pro-labor" and made it serve both.
Getting shop back online at all schools will take four to six more years, added Bates, in an interview, "but it's going to pay big dividends in Oregon's economy." Schools are invited to apply for the CTE grants for shop, said Avakian.
With restored shop courses, Avakian said, "You're going to see these people in careers earlier, with lower school dropout rates and a decreasing crime rate."
Retired Southern Oregon University Vice President Ron Bolstad told Avakian that it's "refreshing" to see BOLI's shift away from enforcement to education.
BOLI is saving businesses millions of dollars in defending against civil rights and wage and hour cases, Avakian said, determining within days which charges lack merit and aggressively prosecuting "where someone is being really harmed."
BOLI gets 60,000 calls a year about worker rights, answers 98 percent of them within 24 hours, and investigates 5,000, he said.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.