House approves bill for vocational scholarships at rural community colleges

  • Wednesday, February 14, 2018 1:30am
  • Business

A proposed program that would provide grants for community college students to learn trades in high demand in rural areas has garnered bipartisan approval in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, prime sponsor of HB 2177, said the legislation is aimed at helping economies in timber and farm country.

“I have been leading the Rural Economic Development Team for the House, so it is very exciting to see our first priority bill pass this session,” Chapman said, following the bill’s 98-0 passage in the House on Feb. 8.

“We talk a lot about rural economy and creating jobs in rural Washington,” Chapman said at a public hearing last month. “It’s really become clear that there are good paying, family wage jobs that are available right now in rural Washington, but there are not trained workers to take those jobs.”

The bill was introduced for first reading in the Senate on Feb. 13, and was referred to Higher Education & Workforce Development for consideration.

All counties in the state would qualify except for King, Pierce, Snohomish, Kitsap, Whatcom, Thurston, Clark, Benton and Spokane counties.

Lisa Perry, representing Sierra Pacific Industries, a timber company in Skagit and Lewis counties, said at the bill’s hearing that at least one line in the company is not operating because of the lack of skilled workers.

She said schools don’t encourage students to study fields like electric engineering, mechanics, or other trade fields. This bill, she said, would allow local industries to work with community colleges in their area to identify industry needs.

“We need this visibility,” Perry said. “We are short on workers.”

The proposed grant would cover tuition and fees for up to 45 credits or one year of full-time study starting no later than the Autumn quarter of the 2019-20 academic year. To be eligible, you must be a resident of a rural county, enrolled in a community college program in a high demand field, have a family income that is less than 70 percent of the state median, and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or the Washington Application for State Financial Aid.

The State board of education has not yet identified specific fields that qualify as high demand areas, but must do so by January of 2019.

“We have a gap and this bill would provide the resources we need to fill that gap,” Erin Frasier, policy director for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges said.

Representative Chapman pointed to the nursing, carpentry, and welding industries as examples of high demand fields.

Amy Anderson, government affairs director of the Association of Washington Businesses, said that there will be almost three-quarters of a million jobs opening in the state within the next five years and a majority of those jobs will require a post-secondary credential of some kind. She said while graduation rates rise, only about 31 percent of high school graduates obtain a post secondary credential or degree.

The Association of Washington Businesses toured 70 manufacturers in October, Anderson said. They found that every business expressed a need for a skilled workforce. Many were unable to expand or forced to shut down manufacturing lines due to the lack of a skilled workforce.

“The need is even more acute in our rural areas in the state,” Anderson said. “The benefit would far outweigh the expenditures to the state.”

According to the bill’s fiscal note, the program would cost $259,000 per year to implement the program. The state would also match any private donations made up to $50 million per year.

“Higher education is one of the best tools in our toolbox to revitalize our small towns and rural counties,” Chapman said. “When we traveled around the state listening to local folks and businesses, we heard again and again about filling the skills gap, so we can get people the education and skills they need for the high-skill jobs in the greatest demand.

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