Educators, listen up

December 13, 2007
By: Vicki Bell

Much has been said and written about the skilled labor shortage, yet it remains an issue that plagues manufacturers across the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Skill comes from training and experience. It begins when an individual is exposed to a craft, develops an interest, and decides to pursue the opportunity. It continues with education and practice. Sounds simple enough. Why is it so difficult to attract prospective skilled workers and persuade education decision-makers to invest in technical training programs?

Andy Godley, training analyst and welding specialist, Southern Company, has been pounding the vocational education drum for four decades. He recently presented the Plummer Memorial Education Lecture about this topic at the 2007 FABTECH® Intl. & AWS Welding Show. And he responded to a recent "Welding Wire" news item that asked readers to share their thoughts about the status of vocational education where they live.

In response to the newsletter, Godley wrote, "In Alabama, there is no vocational education. [Facilities] don't want to be vocational. At the postsecondary level, they want to be junior colleges; they don't want the stigma of vocational. At the secondary level, [vocational courses are referred to as] career technical training. [Educators] think that changing the name will change things. Here in Alabama we have closed hundreds of programs."

I began a dialogue with Godley and asked him to elaborate on his comments. Here's what he had to say:

"The Alabama State Department of Education, Career and Technical Education, tries hard. They think they are [providing] industrial training, but the funding is not what it should be. Local administrations can determine how the money is used, and they usually don't choose to spend it on skills training.

"Alabama has closed more than 500 programs in the last few years. I realize that some of them were no longer needed, but many were. We are growing tremendously in industry in Alabama, and most of these industries require skilled welders and machinists.

"No matter what you do, until funds are earmarked as mandatory for skills training, it will not get better. To quote Dr. Bob Kimbrell, retired state supervisor for vocational education in Alabama, who now runs the Resource Center for Technology, 'Perhaps the biggest [reason for the decline in vocational training is]the fact that non-occupational persons are in charge of most programs.'

"The problem of attracting students into vocational programs has several root causes. The false perception that a college degree equates a better job and status [is one]. The refusal of school counselors to find out about skills, jobs, and apprenticeship, and their refusal to encourage students to do anything but go to college are others.

"The colleges have great publicity campaigns to make people think they are the be all and end all. I think it's all about tuition and money. The real numbers about how many go and how many graduate never come out. I went to college, and graduated, but many people who did not make in excess of $80,000.00 per year."

Out of curiosity, I decided to Google college graduation rates and found a great site that lists rates for individual schools and also compares them across a number of areas to comparable schools. I decided to search for The University of Georgia. Its graduation rate is 73.2 percent. Not the greatest among its comp list of schools. At the top was The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with an 82.9 percent graduation rate. At the bottom of the Top 15 comparison list was Texas Tech University, with a 54.8 percent rate.

So my question is, what happens to those who don't graduate, to say nothing of those who never go on to attend college? It appears to me that there are plenty of candidates for vocational programs. It's a matter of exposing them to technical opportunities in a positive light at an early age and persuading educational institutions that it's in everyone's best interest to endorse and promote these options.

Godley's doing something about it. Are you? Perhaps you can begin by contacting your community and state educational associations and sharing your thoughts about vocational and technical education. Links to your state's department of education can be found here.

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8209