A group of education and business leaders wants to double the number of students who attend vocational high schools, saying it will benefit students and businesses alike.

Educate Maine, an educational advocacy group, and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, along with several businesses and school officials set out strategies Wednesday to bring the number of students who attend career and technical education, or vocational high schools, from 14 percent to 28 percent by 2020.

Currently, about 8,500 of Maine’s roughly 61,000 high school students are in vocational schools, said Ed Cervone, executive director of Educate Maine. He was among a group at the Westbrook Regional Vocational Center calling for increased emphasis on the benefits of vocational educations that lead directly to good-paying jobs, or college admission.

“These resources are going underutilized,” said Cervone of the state’s 27 vocational high schools.

He said that’s especially worrisome when companies such as Cianbro Corp. and others are having difficulty finding skilled workers for available openings. Vocational schools offer training in culinary arts, building trades, health care, advanced manufacturing and pre-enegineering, auto mechanics and many other fields.

But they suffer from an image problem. Cervone, who attended a vocational high school, said the vocational schools of today are nothing like their predecessors.

Today’s schools offer integrated curricula that prepare students for jobs as soon as they graduate, or for college. They have updated, state-of-the-art facilities so students can keep step with changes in industry.

Margaret Harvey, director for career and technical education for Maine, agrees.

“CTE has changed dramatically in the last 10 years,” she said in a statement. “It is the perception that CTE is not a viable option for any student that is the biggest roadblock.

“The CTE programs are now using mandated industry standards and assessments which allow students to enter the workforce ready and trained. Students are choosing their own pathways to careers that are sustaining and fulfilling for both them and Maine.”

Among the strategies the group embraces are:

n Updating the public perception of vocational schools through a public-private partnership;

n Exposing more parents and younger children to career and technical education;

n Requiring guidance counselors to get CTE experience;

n Expanding pre-apprenticeships offerings, the “earn while you learn” backbone of vocational education;

n Reinforcing the strength of college and vocational partnerships.

Cervone said the group has established a goal and strategies and now will work on a plan to implement those strategies.

“We’ll figure out the action steps and price tags and get to work,” he said.

For more information, go to www.educatemaine.org.