Family-wage jobs that require vocational diplomas, degrees and certificates are available but our education system isn’t preparing enough young people to fill them.

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MID-LEVEL skill shortages in Washington state affect thousands of businesses across five industry sectors — maritime, manufacturing, health care, construction and aerospace.

Many family-wage jobs are available, but our education system isn’t preparing enough young people to fill them. About one in seven youths ages 16 to 24 in Washington state are not engaged in either school or work. These disconnected youths represent a critical lost asset in Washington’s economy, evidence of the need for career-connected, individualized learning experiences in our K-12 system.

A set of programs in our middle and high schools can help close these gaps. The education community refers to them as CTE, or Career and Technical Education — a diverse collection of programs that offer hands-on vocational learning experiences to middle- and high-school students. Despite the McCleary-mandated influx of K-12 money, CTE classes are experiencing a funding shortfall that is negatively affecting Washington’s students and businesses.

The League of Education Voters has long held that rigorous CTE coursework can have positive lasting impact on our kids. That’s why we advocated for CTE to be included in our high-school-graduation requirements. Moreover, it’s an investment that pays for itself over time. When young people graduate high school with employable skills, it lightens the net burden on taxpayers and the state. That’s why state lawmakers have proposed SB 6661 and its companion bill, HB 2189, to address the funding shortfall around CTE.

The growing lack of career-connected learning opportunities impacts the economy in three big ways: It restricts business growth, limits educational success in young Washingtonians and it drives unemployment.

Washington employers report having the most difficulty when filling jobs that require vocational diplomas, degrees and certificates. Entire industries are at risk if they can’t access the talent that they need.

CTE increases the likelihood that participants will earn high-school diplomas and postsecondary credentials. Everyone benefits, as degree attainment is linked to higher incomes and less dependence on government services. Students enrolled in a CTE program during high school have a graduation rate of more than 91 percent. That’s significantly higher than the overall statewide rate of 77 percent.

Adequately supporting our youths through education would help prevent youth unemployment, a problem that continues to negatively impact the economy long after the afflicted people find jobs. Even a brief period of unemployment can have long-term consequences: pushing down individual income, lifetime earning potential, and long-term employability, while potentially delaying traditional milestones like homeownership, marriage and children.

A young person who experiences a six-month period of unemployment can expect to miss out on at least $45,000 in wages over the next decade. Of the 120,000 young people in Washington state who are disconnected from both school and work, taxpayers can expect to pay a lifetime cost of about $235,680 for each in welfare payments, food stamps, criminal justice and medical care.

Kids in Washington state are born into wildly varying circumstances. Public education serves as the great equalizer. As a child prepares to enter the adult race for success, the public education system needs to ensure every young person begins on the same starting line.

Failure to fund CTE has an immediate and human cost. For many students, it’s their only viable pathway to a diploma, a family-wage job, and a postsecondary degree or certificate.

College- and career-readiness is the stated goal of our public high schools. But too often the focus is put exclusively on college prep at the expense of workforce readiness. By fixing the CTE funding shortfall, the Legislature could send a clear message that they’re serious about providing K-12 education that delivers for every student.