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Editorial: Defects of education are on display in those seeking training at Northland

Sunday’s News article about advanced manufacturing students who fail to make the cut should have been a wake-up call to the crisis of young people who lack basic skills.

Think of Keith Jones, who attempted to enroll in the Northland Workforce Training Center where he dreamed of going from fast-food worker to a career in advanced manufacturing. When confronted with the center’s reading and math test, he scored below high school sophomore level.

Jones’ disappointment should be matched and exceeded by stakeholders reading his story, and those of others featured by News staff reporter Maki Becker.

Consider, roughly 70 percent of the 600 prospects who tried to enroll in Northland last year could not pass the industry-standard test. Applicants struggled to comprehend technical instructions and blueprints, using formulas to solve problems. They also had trouble filling out complex forms.

These are young people — and some older — who for a variety of reasons did not learn while they were in school. Those profiled accepted their part in this failure. But school districts must figure out how to adjust to student needs. The end-goal: good-paying jobs with benefits and a career path. There are some 3,000 jobs in advanced manufacturing and energy that need to be filled, according to the Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance. State labor officials estimate more than 3,500 jobs will be available over the next five years in health care support. As baby boomers age, the need for health care workers increases. It is imperative to ensure every single young person is lifted up and out of poverty and armed with a high-quality education.

So, when reports show that many of these same young people do not qualify for in-demand jobs because they lack reading and math skills or a diploma, alarm bells should sound. As Jeffrey M. Conrad, director of Workforce Development and Education at Catholic Charities of Buffalo said, “…Tesla is hiring. We have the Buffalo Billion. We expanded the footprint within the Buffalo Medical Corridor.”

But these jobs require minimum standards. The Northland Workforce Training Center requires applicants to have a diploma, in addition to taking the Test for Adult Basic Education, a standard test to determine education levels.

Stephen Tucker, president and CEO of Northland said most applicants the first semester did not pass that test. Nevertheless, those who show promise are allowed to enroll through a center-developed Academic Advancement Support Program.

Help is also available through a network of organizations such as Catholic Charities, which opened its new Workforce Development and Education Center in the former American Axle plant on East Delavan Avenue. The Literacy Zone at Orleans/Niagara BOCES and Literacy New York Buffalo-Niagara are among the organizations offering free assistance. The Adult Education Division of Buffalo Public Schools offers classes at 30 sites around the city, many aimed at helping people earn their high school equivalency, formerly known as GED.

The help is valuable, but it shouldn’t be so desperately needed. Students should be well enough educated that they can survive in the world outside of school. We have to do better.

Jones, who finished his first semester at Northland in the electrical construction and maintenance program, has been given another chance for a better future for himself and his children. And, quite frankly, for a community that needs him.

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