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Putnam pitches focus on vocational programs

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PANAMA CITY, Fla. – Against the backdrop of huge cranes in a shipyard, Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam said Monday that he wants to revamp and empower Florida’s vocational and technical education system.

“As governor of Florida, this will be a top priority of mine,” Putnam said. “The American dream is not simply reserved for those who have a four-year degree. There are many pathways to becoming successful in this country.”

Putnam’s “jobs first” policy is aimed at the 28 percent of Florida’s workforce who do not go on to earn post-high school degrees. He noted more than half of the 460,000 jobs expected to be created in the state’s fastest-growing employment sectors by 2025 will require advanced training but less than a four-year college degree.

But Putnam, who now serves as the state’s agriculture commissioner, said in recent years “the pendulum has swung too far toward solely college prep” to the detriment of many students who may find success through vocational or technical training.

He noted that Florida has never honored a technical or vocational instructor as a teacher of the year.

“That is the most powerful example I am aware of, of how we have treated career and technical education like a second-class citizen,” Putnam said.

He also pointed to the Bright Futures scholarship program where a little over 1 percent of the 97,000 awards went to vocational students in the 2016-2017 academic year. He said at one time the “Gold Seal” vocational program provided some 11,000 scholarships a year.

“It has imploded,” Putnam said. “Part of the reason these are so underused is because of the stigma attached to career and technical education.”

Putnam held his press conference at Eastern Shipbuilding, which is expanding, in part, because it has been awarded contracts to build a new line of offshore patrol cutters for the U.S. Coast Guard and a new vessel for the Staten Island ferry system. But he said the company, like others in Florida, has trouble finding skilled workers, including welders and heavy-equipment operators.

“In every corner of our state, this is a challenge,” Putnam said.

To reform the system, Putnam said he wants to bring more technical and vocational programs back into middle and high schools.

“This is not your father’s shop class. This is a modern version of it,” Putnam said. “It involves laptops, coding, cybersecurity, health care, as well as the traditional construction trades.”

He also said students should be able to earn credits for those classes for advanced technical certifications or degrees, just as college-bound students use Advanced Placement classes or dual enrollment classes to earn credits for their degrees.

Putnam said the state needs more “career academies” at the high school level where students can gain credit or certification for professions like nursing. As an example, he said students can earn nursing certificates and then get job after high schools, while they work toward more advanced degrees without piling up student debt.

Putnam also wants to reduce the complexity of the current system by moving to a “common course numbering” system for technical programs. He said that would allow students who begin a technical program but may temporarily halt it to later return and get credit for their prior work while earning their certificates or degrees.

“We need to increase the flexibility, reduce the time to completion and save students money by preventing them from retaking classes that they have already taken,” he said.

Putnam said he would also put an emphasis on the 28 schools in Florida’s state college system, which carries out much of the technical and vocational training. While the state university system has received a major boost in the state budget in recent years, Putnam said “our state college system has been kicked in the teeth and treated the like the red-headed stepchild.”

But he said his plan is aimed at bringing more coordination among the systems rather than emphasizing one element over another.

“It does not attempt to pit universities against state colleges and technical centers. We need both,” Putnam said.