Adding technical tracks back into high schools

February 29, 2012

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Ever read something that makes you see red? Occasionally, I do. In fact, this happened to me Tuesday morning as I read an article on msnbc.com with the headline "Some employers want return of vo-ed training."

My first reaction? "No kidding; this is old news." The metalworking industry has been bemoaning the demise of vocational training programs for years. However, it was a paragraph later in the article did not sit well with me. The sad thing is, it may be true.

Back in 2003, I wrote an article for thefabricator.com about the future of vocational education. The article cited statistics gleaned from a "Fabricating Update" survey that asked if vocational programs had been cut in subscribers' regions. Seventy-five percent of the respondents said yes; 25 percent said no. Many of those who responded that programs were still intact expressed concern that they might eventually be cut.

At the time the article was written, rumors were circulating that President George W. Bush planned to eliminate funding for the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act in the 2004 budget. First authorized by the federal government in 1984 and reauthorized in 1998, the act "aims to increase the quality of technical education within the United States in order to help the economy." 

In 2006, President Bush signed into law the reauthorization of the Act of 1998. The new law was renamed the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act of 2006. Among the major revisions was using the term "career and technical education" instead of "vocational education." Was this to make it more palatable to a society brainwashed to believe that there is a stigma attached to vocational education and anything other than a college degree is an anathema? Of course, I don’t know what "thinking" went into the decision to change the name. 

According to the msnbc.com article, "a real issue facing businesses that is rarely discussed in education policy debates (is) a lack of well-trained high-school graduates ready for the work force.

"Experts say the problem is the result of a trend that dates to the Reagan era: a well-intentioned push toward more college-prep at the expense of vocational and technical programs in high schools.

"'We began to focus on book learning, and vocational became a dirty word,' said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Center of Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

"As a result, although Census data show a record 30.4 percent of U.S. adults now have a bachelor’s degree or higher, there’s a mismatch between the skills many students acquire in those four years and what employers say they need to fill jobs."

The article goes on to describe the skills needed to run a sheet metal fabrication robot—knowledge of geometry, the ability to read a blueprint, and being able to use a tape measure—skills that don't require a four-year degree. 

It also offers a little history lesson: "As recently as the early 1980, American high school students had the choice of taking college prep or technical classes. This two-track system still thrives in countries like Germany, a country considered a role model by experts who study labor and education issues.

"But Germany's success can't be replicated here for a couple of reasons. Reintegrating a technical track into high schools nationwide is culturally unpalatable, Carnevale said.

"'Politically, it's tough,' he said. 'The majority of Americans always say everybody doesn't need to go to college. Then you say, 'Do your kids need to go to college?' and they say, 'Yes.'"

I take issue with the statement that reintegrating a technical track into high schools nationwide is culturally unpalatable. However, if this is true, it doesn't reflect well on our society. If we pride ourselves on being thinkers, i.e., college-educated, white-collar professionals, instead of doers, i.e., those who've mastered the skills to produce goods and perform services, but don’t have a four-year degree, then our higher education has failed us. We're idiots. You simply have to have doers to bolster the economy and sustain the lifestyle that many of us have enjoyed throughout our lifetimes.

We need the vocational/technical programs, and we need to encourage young people and those in our displaced work force to participate in them. Not doing so is unpalatable to me. I think it's high time to survey the "Fabricating Update" readership about this topic again.

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Vicki Bell

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