By Scott Smith Kokomo Tribune
---- — Congresswoman Susan Brooks’ own personal manufacturing experience may have been limited to three months in a Kendallville caramel factory as a college student, but in her congressional roles, she’s having an impact on the skills debate.
In Kokomo Tuesday to speak to educators, Brooks fielded questions on how federal policy might affect local efforts to bring more young people into manufacturing and logistics jobs.
“For a long time, we said, ‘A four-year degree; that’s what success looks like.’ We realize now we probably screwed up in saying that’s the only pathway to success,” Brooks said.
To a roomful of career center educators and district administrators who have been on the front lines of trying to find skilled workers for unfilled positions, Brooks’ openness to more flexibility for local schools sounded the right note.
Eastern Howard Schools Superintendent Tracy Caddell told Brooks one of the biggest problems facing schools is a lack of ability to send kids off to internships at local factories and businesses.
Kids under 18 aren’t allowed to work on shop floors, “but by the time they’re 18, they’re sometimes in their second semester of high school, and it’s too late,” Caddell said.
Federal workplace regulations are the hindrance in that issue, but Brooks said the U.S. Department of Education’s regulations are also a problem for educators.
“In the [U.S. House] we try to minimize them, but that doesn’t mean it will go any place in the Senate,” she said. “We have to find a middle place.”
Brooks, now in the second year of her first term, serves on a K-12 House education subcommittee, and she’s been working on legislation to promote computer science education, and to allow states more flexibility in how federal workforce development dollars are spent.
Because computer science isn’t considered a “core subject” under federal education law, schools have been reluctant to use federal dollars on computer labs and classes, she said.
“We can’t produce enough computer science people,” she said. “In manufacturing and logistics, they need computer science skills.”
At Tuesday’s forum, hosted by Conexus Indiana, the state’s advanced manufacturing and logistics initiative, Brooks also heard a bit of the internal discussion educators are having as more and more emphasis is placed on career development.
From educators at career centers calling for more funding to purchase advanced manufacturing equipment to train students, to suggestions that Washington take its cue from state-level discussions taking place at Gov. Mike Pence’s Indiana Career Council and Indiana Works Councils, Brooks heard a cross section of the debate.
In Washington, Brooks said, legislators are hung up on a reauthorization of funding for career and technical centers, but are showing more progress in efforts to streamline workforce development funding.
Thursday, Brooks is talking with another group of teachers at a seminar she’s hosting on agribusiness career opportunities, to be held at Beck’s Hybrids in Atlanta.
A former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, she’s perhaps better known for her work on homeland security issues in Congress.
But she told her audience Tuesday she’s hoping to play a key role in the career education discussion.
“As long as I’m in Congress, this is something I’m going to be talking about,” she said.
Scott Smith is on Twitter, @JasonSSmith1, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org