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EDUCATION MATTERS: Is vocational education making a comeback?

Jayne Matthews Hopson | 9/19/2014, 11:34 a.m.
Vocational education (VE) has long been viewed as the path of last resort for under-performing high school students.
Vocational education is making a comeback.

Vocational education (VE) has long been viewed as the path of last resort for under-performing high school students. I know for a fact, school guidance counselors routinely advise students faced with academic failure to abandon college prep course for shop, food service and other vocational classes. On the other hand, I have seen “smart” kids who want to take VE courses shamed for their choice and reproached for refusing to fulfill their academic potential.

There was a time when VE classes were a part of the course of study for all high school students. In the days when college was out of financial reach for most students, the conventional wisdom was a 12 grade education should prepare everyone to get a job upon completion of high school. Looking back, it’s clear that the combination of academics and vocational training prepared graduates to seek more post high school options.

As loans, grants and other financing options provided an increasing number of students the opportunity to attend college, VE classes became a “second class” way to earn a high school diploma. Schools presented vocational classes as an alternative reserved for students who lacked the academic skills for college level work. This practice gave rise to the stigma attached to students who pursued manual labor instruction in high school.

Now, the stigmatization may be coming to an end. Vocational Education may be the next big idea. In support of this prediction, trend-watchers believe economic necessity could elevate the importance and value of VE. Jobs ready training in high school is starting to be embraced as a way of reversing the growing number of underemployed college grads. This trend could also address the increasing demand for individuals skilled in professions such as health care alliance, advanced manufacturing and high tech construction.

Here are some interesting facts about VE offered by Michael Wonacott, author of the book “Benefits of Vocational Education.” He writes, “A range of studies contain strong evidence that the generic technical skills and occupationally specific skills provided in VE increase worker productivity, skill transfer, job access, and job stability when vocational graduates find training-related jobs.

Popular misconceptions about the labor market and college, including the widespread beliefs among parents that a four-year college degree will guarantee their children a place in the middle class and that every child has the aptitude and interests to succeed in an academic four-year college degree program, may reinforce the traditional negative image of VE.“

Nevertheless, Dr. Wonacott believes “a closer look at the supply and demand in the labor market” may spark the resurgence of vocational education, and help shore up America’s place in the global economy.

The usually straightforward online publication “Business Insider” waxes poetic about the future of vocational education: “after long being left to languish, the detritus [waste product] of an industrial era, vocational education will soon be seen as the handmaiden of a new economy.”

Indeed, American economists are casting their interest to Europe for insights on how to fix our glut of chronically unemployed citizens. Several countries, including Great Britain and Germany consider the high number of out of work youth their biggest barrier to a full economic recovery. “In the European Union about a quarter of 15 to 25-year-olds are jobless. Yet, firms complain bitterly they are unable to find skilled labor: 27 percent of employers report they have had to leave a vacancy open.”

Business Insider also noted, “The university bubble is beginning to burst.

Democratizing universities has proved an expensive and inefficient way of providing mass higher education. Americans have taken on more than $1 trillion in student debt. But many grads feel they got poor value for their money: over-crowed classes— taught by PhD students not professors, subsidizing expensive research programs, and a college diploma that no longer ensures a desirable job.

Frustration with the status quo is at last leading to a burst of innovation. The Internet is well suited to vocational education: it helps reduce costs while making it easier to earn a living while doing some vocational training.”

The monetization of this trend demands careful public attention. A “new mixture of technology and different methods of teaching is attracting a host of entrants, from universities looking for customers to innovators hoping to create new businesses. Early adopters include Capella University's FlexPath and Udacity, an online education firm that has teamed up with AT&T to provide ‘nano-degrees’— job-related qualifications that can be completed in six to 12 months for $200 a month.”

Jayne Matthews Hopson writes about education matters because “only the educated are free.”