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Hearings Leave Questions Over Skills-Training Issues

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WASHINGTON--Job-training policymakers in the Education and Labor departments were left with daunting issues to tackle following a series of regional hearings that revealed broad support for a system of occupational-skill standards for work-bound youths.

Despite the general support reported across the country at the hearings to launch the school-to-work component of President Bush's America 2000 education plan, the sessions also spotlight some nagging issues that federal officials have yet to resolve.

"We're sitting back and looking at a stack of papers and saying, 'Where do we go from here?' '' said Betsy Brand, the Education Department's assistant secretary for vocational and adult education.

Some of the questions vexing staff members in Ms. Brand's office and the Labor Department's employment and training administration include: Whether vocational programs should focus more heavily on education or training; how the new standards will dovetail with similar education and labor efforts; and, perhaps most challenging, how to identify industries with similar skill needs.

Blurring Distinctions

Education groups in particular were quick to point out that those involved in the standards effort have yet to indicate whether schools should bolster basic-education programs or make job-oriented training more rigorous.

"The background information in the Federal Register announcing these hearings had a disturbing tendency to blur the differences between training and education,'' testified Bruce Leslie, the president of Onondaga (N.Y.) Community College, on behalf of the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges.

"Significant skill changes usually require a strong education base. If we are to seek skill standards, the educational component must be exactly defined,'' he said.

Bret Lovejoy, the American Vocational Association's assistant executive director for government relations, added that it is important that federal officials recommend roles for educators.

"The Department of Labor needs to hear about how this will affect teachers and students,'' Mr. Lovejoy said. "We're interested to know if the Administration is going to be willing to make the investment in teacher training so that these standards can be taught.''

Further, officials of the Education and Labor department must determine how the America 2000 skill requirements complement the skill competencies recently recommended by the Labor Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, as well as provisions in the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act that have vocational educators working to set program-performance standards by the fall.

"We have to make sure we do the right things and don't become too intrusive,'' said Ms. Brand, noting that officials will make efforts to include the óãáîó skills in the new skills standards.

She added, however, that direct ties to the new Perkins Act requirements are not a great concern.

"Those should be less industry-specific and more program-oriented,'' she said. "Maybe over time they will get closer and the skill standards could be used as a program measure.''

Main Challenge

For now, officials said their main challenge will be to identify jobs that have similar skill demands and to create consensus on the industrial categories that will drive the standards program.

Mr. Leslie, the community-college president, explained the difficulty of such an exercise. "Defining an industry will lead to the discovery of many discrete occupational families nesting within a single industry,'' he said. "If we aren't careful, things could be made worse.''

Ms. Brand acknowledged the complexity of the task, but said the hearings had identified innovative examples that should inform the federal effort.

"There is a lot of interesting work being done around the country by companies, labor unions, states, and local agencies,'' she said. "We will be able to draw on a lot of that material.''

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