While HVAC contractors around the country were sweating hot temperatures and overloaded schedules at the end of July, the federal government improved the contracting industry’s odds for a healthier future by ushering the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act into law.
The bill, which lawmakers and stakeholders often refer to as Perkins V, was an update of the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006. Perkins V represents the authorization (but not actual appropriation) of funds to support a range of career education opportunities, including HVAC-related training, for six years, beginning in July 2019.
The House of Representatives had passed its version in June 2017, but the Senate did not pick up the matter until July of this year. Once it did, things moved quickly. A bipartisan Senate version was approved, and the House passed that via voice vote, which avoided the risk of the legislation getting bogged down in reconciliation. It proceeded directly to President Donald Trump’s desk, and he signed it on July 31.
Perkins V builds not only on past updates (the initial version passed in 1984), but on the intent of a more recent executive order signed by Trump in June 2017. In it, the president ordered steps to expand apprenticeships and improve current job training programs. Measures included tapping into Department of Labor funding to promote such opportunities, supporting school and university efforts to incorporate apprenticeships into their curricula, and creating a task force across the spectrum of education, manufacturing, labor, and nonprofit interests.
PRESSURE FROM PAST AND FUTURE
How overdue was this authorization? Perkins IV went into effect in 2006 and was intended to be updated five years ago. The financial impact of this delay, and of tepid funding in prior years, was significant. Advance CTE analysis stated that by staying flat 1991-2017, the funding’s buying power had fallen by $933 million in inflation-adjusted dollars, representing a 45 percent reduction over the years.
Meanwhile, the pinch between the shrinking talent pool and the growing anticipated labor demand only got tighter in the industry. As Tim Kane, president of Goodway Technologies, wrote in a May 21, 2018, column for this publication, technician jobs are expected to grow 15 percent from 2016 to 2026, “much faster than the average for all occupations. … Not only is the demand increasing, but the current workforce is preparing to retire within the next 10 years.”
TINKERING AND TAILORING
After waiting so long to update Perkins IV, the new version does include an array of adjustments, definitions, and shifts in process and influence, some more bureaucratic than others. ACCA played a critical role in moving Perkins V toward becoming law and in encouraging revisions to aid the HVAC industry in particular. Barton James is ACCA’s senior vice president for government relations.
“ACCA is pleased to see the agreement includes new flexibility to allow states to set benchmarks for career and technical education using grants from the $1.2 billion program, a departure from existing law, which had a complete lack of focus on in-demand job opportunities, like those in HVAC,” he said.
Warren Lupson, industry veteran and executive director of the Partnership for Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA), touched on other changes.
“In the old [Perkins IV], the states were required to make progress yearly on the core indicators as outlined in the Act,” he said. “The performance benchmarks were graduation rate, percentage of students that furthered their education, got jobs, obtained credentialing, etc.”
With Perkins V, he said, states can set their performance goals with the Department of Education after consultation with stakeholders in the state. Those stakeholders are employers and other associations. However, the plans still need to be approved by the Department of Education, and states will be required to make ‘meaningful progress’ over time in moving toward those goals.
That increased leverage to craft their own grant usage is notable, said James. He offered the example of a state that knows an HVAC company is considering coming to that state, or expanding existing operations. Within the framework of Perkins V, that state is better situated to tailor its training to align with those upcoming job opportunities, rather than conforming to a one-size-fits-all agenda.
Making the most of an opportunity to update what actually gets taught within HVAC training programs was a common aspiration in conversations about Perkins V. James said it has been 20 years since the curriculum was updated. And Todd Washam, ACCA director of industry relations, outlined the need (and the impact of past neglect in this area) as it manifests itself among current contractors.
“We need to try to get more schools to teach a curriculum that allows their students to hit the ground running and be productive,” he said. “I mean, on our internal board forum, we see the frustration shine through from contractors about the poor quality of students that they’re getting from the technical schools.”
He describes a Catch-22 where the contractors are less willing to invest time and resources in their local training schools and in building relationships because they are seeing what they describe as underequipped graduates on the back end of the process, which only makes it that much harder for many schools to improve the quality of their graduates.
“That is why PAHRA accreditation of the HVACR schools is necessary,” said Lupson. “The purpose of PAHRA is to improve the quality of training offered at all levels of education by meeting or exceeding established industry standards in the HVACR industry. This helps assure that students have a minimum competency level required for graduation and certification, as determined by the HVACR industry associations.”
Lupson went on to say that a new curriculum should be something that can earn the approval of both the industry and the Department of Labor.
Washam and James welcomed the idea of greater PAHRA influence working in tandem with the new law, seeing a renewed effort to persuade technical programs to embrace PAHRA criteria as a key in the coming years. Washam estimated that less than 20 percent of such schools are accredited today.
“It starts with people understanding that credentialing means something,” he explained, “but, you know, sadly it doesn’t mean anything when you haven’t updated the curriculum.”
Although other organizations maintained a sense of caution about passing this important but relatively early funding hurdle, they did see potential upsides of Perkins V.
Kimberly A. Green, Advance CTE’s executive director, wrote that “we appreciate the expansion of the bill’s ability to support career exploration in the middle grades, an important step in promoting all learners’ needs to explore their interests, aptitudes, and talents as they craft their education and career plans.”
At the same time, she expressed concern about possible loopholes and the degree of care that will be required of congressional staff.
“We do not want to go back to a time when there are different academic tracks for CTE versus non-CTE students,” Green said.
When asked if there’s any aspect in the legislation that she would’ve changed, her preference was that it “require full scaling of programs of study, which were a successful innovation under Perkins IV that we believe should be the core of Perkins V.”
Karen Horting, executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), noted one component of Perkins V that represented some discussions between parties and chambers.
“The update also includes support for programs and activities that increase access, student engagement, and success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields (including computer science), particularly for students who are members of groups underrepresented in such subject fields, such as female students, minority students, and students who are members of special populations,” she said. “Inclusion of this language was a big win for SWE and the minority STEM community.”
The Senate version of the bill, which involved more recent negotiation across the aisle, spent time coordinating consistent language with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act language and with other civil rights concerns. In what became the final version, Perkins funding is dependent on states presenting minimum objectives for the progress of their students in special populations, such as English learners and those in foster care.
In what was seen as an improvement for states, their plans may face a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down but would no longer be subject to more involved negotiations with the federal government.
Lupson pointed toward another area of what he sees as untapped potential for qualified employees: state and local correctional facilities.
“There are a lot of incarcerated people who are being taught a skill but cannot get jobs,” he said, suggesting that many of them are there for relatively minor drug offenses.
(TRY TO) FOLLOW THE MONEY
The caution voiced by assorted industry stakeholders is based on the question marks still standing between this authorization and the actual implementation. The timing of midterm elections in November only adds to uncertainty about the path ahead. The standard appropriations process contains a range of possible outcomes, both in terms of actual dollar amounts and their specific destinations. Regarding federal funding for the nation in general, Washam explained that it could come in the form of an omnibus bill; a less comprehensive funding bill; or that funding tactic of choice for a large part of this century, the Continuing Resolution. All of these variables could have an impact on the ultimate shape and effect of the new authorization.
In addition, James pointed out a relevant wrinkle in the usual state/federal dynamic.
It’s pretty nice to see this unified voice on the federal side in the form of Perkins V, he said. However, he noted, “I haven’t seen the states really echo the needs that we’re screaming from the rooftops about as much.”
But now, some money is going to start moving outward from Washington at last, and it will be time for the states to step up their game.
When asked about the hopes that the belated passage of Perkins V inspires at the end of the day, another consistent message was that it could and should facilitate more involvement by the rest of the industry in the training process. As the technician shortage has progressed, more contractors have taken the training burden upon themselves. These efforts have taken many shapes and sizes, and while it might seem like the resurgence of federal training funding could create a conflict, Washam sees an opportunity.
“From an association standpoint, we’re going to be able to do more … maybe certify so that our members who are doing this training already could run a full apprenticeship program, similar to what you’ve seen the unions have such great success with over the years,” he said.
And that sort of aspiration aligns with the vision Green offers.
“CTE must partner with employers to inform curriculum, offer work-based learning opportunities, etc.,” she said. “We believe employers should be at the table, as fully vested partners in the design and delivery of CTE programs of study.”
Lupson affirmed that the key objective from the beginning has been to support employer engagement and reward collaboration between employers and educators. Toward that end, the states seem better positioned to help that happen, as long as their programs can meet certain performance targets.
The big picture still contains a lot of if’s: If funding gets where it can do the most good … if states use their increased latitude (and their grant money) wisely … if some training schools freshen their coursework to better reflect realities in today’s technology and in the field … if contractors and manufacturers seize the opportunity to recommit to helping industry education turn a corner, and so forth.
Progress on any one of those helps the chances of progress in the others. And as industry observers found most remarkable and encouraging, this funding update is now in motion, thanks to truly bipartisan (and eventually, swift) action among different parties and branches of the federal government. Can any remaining milestone in the sequence of events really be more unlikely than that?
Publication date: 9/3/2018