The moment that opened people's eyes perhaps came in the spring of 2011. With Fresno County's unemployment rate at 17%, many employers found it difficult -- if not impossible -- to fill jobs that paid $15, $20 or more an hour and included benefits.
Thousands of these positions were going begging because prospective employees didn't have the training or the skills to get the job done, company owners and managers said.
Three years later, school districts and superintendents in the San Joaquin Valley appear serious about career technical education -- the term often used to describe a new generation of vocational education. These classes prepare high school students to be career ready while providing the option of college enrollment.
It's much the same elsewhere in California and across the nation. The immense social costs associated with dropping out of school and the reality of high school graduates ill-prepared for available jobs is forcing an examination of curriculum. This review is essential for the United States to be competitive in a fast-changing global economy -- and for us to do right by the young people moving into the job market.
The timing couldn't be better. Under a new funding formula championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, schools with high concentrations of students from poor families and students learning English will have more money for programs intended to raise graduation rates and train students for jobs with living wages.
As The Bee's Hannah Furfaro reported in our "Eye on Education" special report, we already are seeing the positive power of career education in the Fresno area.
A seven-year study by the James Irvine Foundation indicates that graduates of the Center for Advanced Research and Technology enroll in community colleges at significantly higher rates than their peers. CART graduates also enroll at four-year universities at slightly higher rates.
In addition, Hispanic students who take both career technical education and college-track classes are more likely to pass the California High School Exit Exam, according to 2011 UC Berkeley research cited by Furfaro.
This suggests that making the intangibles of education more tangible to students keeps them interested in learning -- something that is crucial to students and society at large.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average high school dropout has an annual income of $20,241. That is about $10,400 less a year than the typical high school graduate and $16,200 less than someone with a bachelor's degree.
As for social costs, a Northeastern University study found that each high school dropout costs taxpayers about $292,000 over a lifetime.
We have a warning for parents clamoring for more and better career classes.
School district trustees often talk up the virtues of CTE -- especially at election time -- because these classes are popular with voters. But proof of a district's commitment to CTE comes at budget time. Many times, this curriculum is poorly funded.
Parents who want cutting-edge vocational training for their children must make their voices heard, and not accept excuses when budgets are decided.
In addition, parents can't expect to leave their child's future solely in the hands of a teacher or a district. Under some CTE models, students are required to select a "pathway" reflecting their career interest that will lead them to a job or college.
Parents must talk with their children about their goals and make thoughtful decisions.
Working together, we can put together world-class CTE programs that help our young adults and lift up the entire Valley.