Swiss: Voc ed is key to prosperity

Students on the vocational track at Swiss training institute Ausbildungszentrum.

Americans believe earning a four-year degree is the key to prosperity, writes Marc Tucker on Education Week. In Switzerland, which has one of the strongest economies in the world, 70 percent of high school students are in their vocational education system, while only 20 percent prep for universities.

The Swiss set very high standards in their academic and vocational tracks, Tucker writes. Vocational students come from every ability level and every economic level. Graduates will qualify for high-skill, high-wage jobs. Some will rise to lead global firms.

Swiss vocational students do multi-year apprenticeships at a work site. Employers provide instruction and mentoring.  “Students alternate between time spent in vocational schools, paid for by government, and time spent in individual firms and in programs offered by industry associations, paid for by the firms,” Tucker writes.

What impressed us most were the apprentices we talked with, young people who were entrusted with substantial responsibility by their employers, very proud of the remarkable level of skills they were achieving and of the contribution they were able to make to the firm for which they were working, and justifiably confident of their future.  Many could see a clear path to college if they wanted it, but most were content to start out on the career for which they were training and eager to see where it would lead.  Nothing about them suggested that they felt that they had been shunted into a dead end.

U.S. schools provide little vocational education, he writes. Employers do even less. “In our misguided drive to send everyone to four-year colleges, we have turned our back” on vocational education and training, he concludes. Yet most young people will enter the workforce without a college degree — and without job skills.

Obama touts job training, but where’s the money?

President Obama’s “rhetorical support for vocational training” hasn’t been matched with money, writes Avi Yashchin, CEO of CleanEdison, a vocational education company. In 2012 the federal government spent more than $166 billion on aid and $14 billion on tax benefits, but only $1 billion on vocational education.

Rejuvenating vocational education and skill-specific certificate programs would do more for students than subsidizing bachelor’s degrees, Yashchin writes. But vocational education still has a stigma.

There is a perceived distinction between preparing students to be career-ready, with employable skills, and preparing them to be global, well-rounded citizens, with critical thinking skills — but the two are not actually mutually exclusive. We must convey to both rising students and displaced workers that, to the contrary, many vocational training programs lead to sophisticated work, rather than dirty, mind-numbing labor, as was the case 30 years ago. Today’s technical jobs require not only hands-on skills, but also the ability to troubleshoot, adapt, innovate, synthesize data, and communicate effectively.

The career-apprenticeship model lets students divide their time between the classroom and the workforce. They learn theoretical and practical skills.

Studies have shown that high school students who graduate from these programs earn, on average, 11 percent more than their counterparts who end up in the same field.

Apprenticeships work with industry-recognized certification to make young people highly employable.

Government must provide funding to allow schools to purchase state-of-the art equipment, writes Yashchin. Businesses must hire and train apprentices. “And finally, parents and society at large must recognize that the jobs that vocational education lead to today are both well-paying and rewarding.”

New goal: ‘Community college ready’

(Academic) college isn’t for everyone, wrote Fordham’s Mike Petrilli in Slate. Some students who are failing in college might succeed if they pursued job training, he argued.

It sparked a huge response. Many argued that students need college prep and career prep.

Others accused Petrilli of “the soft bigotry of low expectations” for low-income and minority students.

“Community college ready” should be the minimum goal for all cognitively able students, responded Sandy Kress, an aide to George W. Bush. That means high school graduates should be prepared to take academic or vocational classes at a community college without the need for remediation.

Kress “prays” that “CTE advocates make these courses as rigorous and valued as they promise they will, and not just a dodge for them to avoid teaching and learning in the so-called old fashioned courses.” In the past, dead-end vocational education has been a “trap” for low-income and minority kids, writes Kress.

Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs in Metropolitan America, edited by Penn Professor Laura Perna, looks at the gap between school and the workforce.

Check out “Nancy Hoffman’s excellent chapter on career and technical education,” advises Liz McInerny on Education Gadfly. Education and training for a specific calling  would keep students in school and on track for decent jobs, Hoffman writes.

Swiss mix work, learning

U.S. adults score well below the global competition in literacy, numeracy and problem solving using technology, according to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies.

While older Americans scored well, younger Americans lagged behind workers in other developed countries, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. should learn from Switzerland’s vocational education system, say Nancy Hoffman of Jobs for the Future and Bob Schwartz, a Harvard education professor.

Two-thirds of Swiss teens choose to “combine learning at the workplace and learning in a classroom,” says Schwartz. Switzerland has the “lowest youth unemployment rate in the developed world, yet it ranks very high in innovation and economic performance.

When you talk to Swiss leaders and ask how can this be, you have such a small fraction of your young people going through the university system, the Swiss will say, “No, no, it’s because we really invest in preparing folks who are at the front lines and we look to our kind of everyday workers to provide a lot of the innovation that really spurs the economy.”

Young Swiss apprentices are put to work immediately, says Hoffman.

. . .  in the banking industry, we saw 16-year-olds in suits and little round glasses all sitting next to their hedge fund managers and actually handling aspects of accounts.  You go to which is the biggest telephone Internet provider in Switzerland and there they have an extremely innovative program where students can choose to work on any project that any employer posts on a bulletin board.

By the third year, at age 17 or 18, apprentices earn about $1,000 a month, says Schwartz. Once they complete the program, they’ve earned a valuable qualification which puts them “on a ladder to a middle-class wage.” That idea is spreading to the U.S.

. . . Volkswagen, which operates a 3,000-person plant in Chattanooga proudly announced the completion of a first apprenticeship program in automotive mechatronics for 25 young people.  They do this in partnership with a regional community college there.  These people now have a qualification that is worldwide in value.

Vocational education isn’t stigmatized in Switzerland, Finland and other countries that have modernized their systems, Hoffman says.

 So while they teach construction and they teach carpentry and they teach the old trades, the system is really known as the place you go if you want any kind of high-tech skills.  If you want to be an engineer, if you want to work in IT, if you want to learn graphic design, if you want to be a nurse, if you want to be a childcare teacher, you go to the vocational system.

In Switzerland, vocational students can go on to the University of Applied Sciences.  At Credit Suisse, 40 percent of apprentices also were studying for a professional baccalaureate, says Schwartz. “There are no dead ends.”

21st century vo-tech

The New Vo-Tech is helping students prepare for skilled careers — and for college, writes Del Stover for American School.

 Not long ago, a manufacturer asked for assistance from the Pickens County Career and Technology Center (South Carolina). A factory robot needed to be retooled for a new product, and the company’s technicians were too busy to do the work. Could the high school’s students take on the project?

. .. Soon, students were installing a new welding arm and reprogramming the robot, even though the company didn’t have a technician’s manual to help with the work.

“After we finished that, the company said they were going to put the robot on line at the plant, and they’d need maintenance,” (Principal Leonard) Williams says. “So they hired one of our kids for an apprenticeship … and hired another kid from our electronics program.”

Vo-tech — often called career and technical education (CTE) — works best when schools work closely with local employers.

In Pickens County, 1,100 students “study everything from auto repair and high-tech welding to pre-engineering and medical sciences.” Some work in school workshops or apprentice at local companies. Others earn college credits at a local technical school or work toward vocational certifications.

 High school senior Toby Wofford took part in an apprenticeship program with a local manufacturer and has decided to stay on with the company after graduation. He is working part-time while seeking an associate’s degree at the firm’s expense.

Meanwhile, senior Conner Smith, who originally studied mechanical and architectural drafting at the technical center, says his experience sparked an interest in engineering that he’ll pursue in college.

In Europe, vocational education isn’t seen as a dead end, says Nancy Hoffman, author of Schooling in the Workplace. Vocational students can go on to technical colleges and universities. In the U.S., vocational education is seen as less rigorous, fit for low-performing students who aren’t going to college. There’s a stigma, says Hoffman.

“CTE prepares young people for high-demand jobs — in career areas where there are significant opportunities for middle-class wages. These jobs may require skills that may be slightly different  than what’s offered in traditional academics, but there are rigorous levels of math and writing required. This is not a dumbed-down version of high school.”

Career-tech courses don’t hurt — or help — math achievement, concludes a new study. Federal legislation has attempted to integrate career and academic courses to prepare more students for STEM careers and college majors.

The diamond economy

The U.S. economy resembles an hourglass with a pinched middle, writes Marc Tucker. Singapore has a diamond economy, thanks to its educated workforce.

(Singapore) built a very high floor under the entire workforce by providing a world-class academic curriculum to all their students and creating a world-class teaching force to teach that curriculum.  They built a system of polytechnics as good as any in the world to provide very highly skilled senior technical workers for a wide range of industries.  Perhaps most impressive, they created a set of post-secondary vocational schools for the bottom quarter of their students as fine as any I have seen anywhere in the world, with facilities that rival those of many American universities.  They turned vocational education and training from a dumping ground into a sought-after alternative that attracts more and more students every year.

Ninety percent of Singapore’s vocational graduates have job offers in their chosen fields within six months of graduation, Tucker writes.  Youth unemployment is very low.

Six states unite on career pathways

Students need alternatives to the four-year college track, including career pathways that include strong academics and technical education, concludes the 2011 Pathways to Prosperity report by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Now Harvard, Jobs for the Future and six states have launched the Pathways to Prosperity Network to focus on helping young people  complete high school, earn a college credential with labor-market value and start a career, while leaving open the prospect of further education. Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, and Tennessee will develop career pathways.

Pathway systems will include:

Employers committed to providing learning opportunities at the workplace and supporting the transition of young people into the labor market;

Career pathways with clear structures, timelines, costs, and requirements linking and integrating high school and community college curricula and aligning both with labor market needs;

An early and sustained career information and advising system strong enough to help students and families make informed choices about educational career paths; and

Seventy percent of high school graduates enroll in college, but most students will not earn a four-year degree by the age of 25, notes Jobs for the Future. Even among college graduates, “as many as half may be unemployed or, more typically, underemployed” at 25. Employment and earnings are even worse for  young people who never earned a college credential and still worse for high school dropouts.

The death of voc ed — and the middle class

The death of vocational education is hastening the demise of the middle class, argues Marc Tucker in Ed Week.

Years ago, almost all the larger cities had selective vocational high schools whose graduates were virtually assured good jobs, Tucker writes. Employers made sure these schools had “competent instructors and up-to-date equipment,” so graduates would meet job requirements.

That ended when vocational education became just another class, often crowded out by academic requirements, Tucker writes.

I will never forget an interview I did a few years ago with a wonderful man who had been teaching vocational education for decades in his middle class community.  With tears in his eyes, he described how, when he began, he had, with great pride prepared young men (that’s how it was) for well-paying careers in the skilled trades.  Now, he told me, “That’s all over.  Now I get the kids who the teachers of academic courses don’t want to deal with.  I am expected to use my shop to motivate those kids to learn what they can of basic skills.”  He was, in high school, trying to interest these young people, who were full of the despair and anger that comes of knowing that everyone else had given up on them, to learn enough arithmetic to measure the length of a board.  He knew that was an important thing to do, but he also knew that it was a far cry from serious vocational education of the sort he had done very well years earlier.

Career academies were developed to motivate students, not to prepare them for real jobs, Tucker writes. Voc ed, now renamed “career technical education,” is no longer a “serious enterprise” in high schools.

By contrast, Japan, Singapore, the Netherlands, Denmark and other leading industrial countries “doubled down to improve both their academic and their vocational programs.”

They built vocational education programs that require high academic skills.  And they designed programs that could deliver those skills.  They did not sever the connections between employers and their high schools; they strengthened them.  They made sure their high school vocational students had first-rate instructors and equipment.  Their reward is a work force that is balanced between managers and workers, scientists and technicians.  No one tells an individual student what he or she will do with their life.  But those students have a range of attractive choices.

Tucker links to descriptions of vocational education in the NetherlandsAustralia and Singapore.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called for states to require school attendance till age 18 or graduation. If schools offer no options except the college track, that seems cruel.



Minnesota schools can’t meet career-tech demand

Minnesota high schools can’t meet the rising demand for career-tech classes, reports the Star-Tribune. Just in the last three years, career-tech classes have been cut by more than half because of flat state and federal funding and a focus on core reading and math classes to meet No Child Left Behind standards.

“It gets rugged while running an auto-mechanic class with 60 kids,” said Daniel Smith, who oversees Minnesota’s high school career and technical education as the supervisor of Minnesota’s Center for Postsecondary Success.

In the 1970s, there were more than 70 career and technical centers for high school students in Minnesota. The well-equipped centers offered dozens of nationally certified programs, Smith said.

In the 1980s, high schools began to be seen as a place to prepare students for a liberal arts four-year degree, emphasizing reading, writing and arithmetic rather than skills for a job.

Twenty-six community colleges and surrounding school districts have created consortia to collaborate on career-tech classes.


Joe Six-Pack needs education, skills

Demand is growing for blue-collar workers, but the good jobs require education and skills that few high school graduates can offer, writes Joel Kotkin in City Journal.  As baby-boom workers retire, employers worry about finding new workers who can run million-dollar machinery.

Even as overall manufacturing employment has dropped, employment in high-skill manufacturing professions has soared 37 percent since the early 1980s, according to a New York Federal Reserve study. These jobs can pay handsomely. An experienced machinist at Ariel Corporation (in Ohio) earns over $75,000, a very good wage in an area where you can buy a nice single-family house for less than $150,000.

A big reason for the demand is changes on the factory floor. At Ariel, (CEO Karen) Wright points out, the operator of a modern CNC (computer numerical control) machine, which programs repetitive tasks such as drilling, is running equipment that can cost over $5 million. A new hire in this position must have knowledge of programming, metallurgy, cutting-tool technology, geometry, drafting, and engineering. Today’s factory worker is less Joe Six-Pack and more Renaissance man.

Even the auto industry, which laid off 230,000 workers during the recession, will be trying — and struggling — to find skilled workers, predicts David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research. The industry will need more than 100,000 new workers by 2013, Cole says and “will start running out of people with the proper skills as early as next year.”

A 2005 study by Deloitte Consulting found that 80 percent of manufacturers expected a shortage of skilled production workers, more than twice the percentage that expected a lack of scientists and engineers and five times the percentage that expected a lack of managerial and administration workers.

Vocational education has declined as nearly all counselors — and parents — tell high school students to aim for a bachelor’s degree, employers complain.  “Kids . . .  don’t realize a pipe fitter makes three times as much as a social worker,” says Jeff Kirk, manager of human relations at Kaiser Aluminum’s plant in Heath, Ohio.

Some high schools are now working with industry to train students for high-wage industrial jobs, writes Kotkin, citing Houston’s Academy for Petroleum Exploration and Production Technology.

Technical and community colleges also are designing programs for adults who need high-value job skills in a hurry.

. . . Central Ohio Technical College, has recently expanded by 70 welding students and 50 aspiring machinists per year. Many of the college’s certificate programs are designed and partly funded by companies, which figure that they’re making a wise investment.

There are many examples. I wasn’t surprised to see two technical colleges — in Kentucky and South Dakota — were runners-up for the Aspen Prize this year.