CT Department of Labor

In his State of the Union speech, President Biden urged Congress and the states to “finish the job” – a call to confront and solve the various critical issues facing our nation.

But as we all know, you can’t finish a job that you’re haven’t even started. And right now, when it comes to filling any of the 11 million job openings in America, too many students across our country and right here in Connecticut leave high school without the qualifications they need to get a good-paying job.

Bob Duff

Today, 80 percent of good-paying jobs require something beyond a high school education, and more than 50 percent require a bachelor’s degree or higher. Not only that, but people with advanced degrees are far less vulnerable to being laid off during any economic downturn. During the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the unemployment rate for people with a bachelor’s degree or higher never exceeded 5 percent. At the height of the COVID-10 pandemic, it never went much beyond 8 percent. But people with a high school degree, or no college at all? Their unemployment rates during the COVID-19 pandemic hit 17.6 percent.

Unfortunately, a new report by the non-profit education equity group “All4Ed” shows that enrollment rates and college completion rates are persistently low, especially for students who have been historically marginalized when it comes to earning a postsecondary degree. All4Ed found that, compared to their white peers, Black and Latino students are less likely to be college and career ready, and therefore less likely to enroll in college. They also found that different states take wildly different approaches to measuring whether students are ready for postsecondary education in the first place.

There is hope, however.

This year, I’d like to expand Connecticut’s P-Tech program. P-TECH is an education model created by IBM to prepare young people with the academic, technical, and professional skills they need to land a 21st Century job in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

Working together in previous sessions, Gov. Ned Lamont and legislators added seats to Norwalk’s P-Tech program for both local students and students from the surrounding communities. I’d like to see Connecticut add even more P-Tech programs in alliance districts.

Connecticut is doing what U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (whom we all know as Connecticut’s former commissioner of the state Department of Education) recently called for when he touted “career pathways in high school that can lead to micro credentials for the jobs of today and tomorrow.”

Secretary Cardona also emphasized the need to change an ingrained belief in so many parents and high school students: “that it’s four-year-college or bust.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Under the leadership of Secretary Cardona, the U.S. Department of Education has launched its first Career-Connected High School program. Congress provided $25 million for grants that will be allocated later this year for partnerships among school districts, employers, and colleges to create stronger pathways from high school to higher education.

As a member of the NewDEAL Leaders (an organization of Democrats across the country), I’ve taken part in NewDEAL’s work to develop and elevate national education policy, and what I’ve seen impresses me.

Massachusetts offers students an Early College program that blends high school and college: students earn college credits, save money, and increase their likelihood of earning a college degree. What began with six programs in 2018 has now grown to 39 programs serving 6,000 students. In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis is funding workforce development grants to provide free training for high-demand job fields. California is putting half a billion dollars into competitive grants to promote pathways to high-wage, high-skill, high-growth areas, including technology, health care, education, and climate-related fields.

President Biden has laid out the challenge to America: let’s “finish the job” he started two years ago to move our country forward on several public policy fronts, including capping the cost of insulin, expanding Medicare benefits, investing in our national infrastructure and bringing more technology jobs back to America so we’re not at the mercy for foreign computer chip manufacturers.

We have the young students here in Connecticut and across our great country to get that done. All we need are more opportunities like the P-Tech program and other high school to career pathways programs that other states are investing in. Now is indeed the time to “finish the job.”

 Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) is the Connecticut State Senate Majority Leader