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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
High-tech entrepreneur Andy Grove funds scholarships for vocational students at community colleges, adult ed programs and private career colleges. In an interview with the Philanthropy Roundtable, Grove talks about the importance of vocational training.
In high school, capable students are steered away from vocational education, Grove complains. In community college, completion rates are very low.
First of all, they need to work while they are in school. Second, many of them need remedial education. Third, they can’t get the required classes and counseling they need—and that was before the budgetary cuts of the current year. Partly for this reason, we also fund scholarships for private vocational training institutes.
A related issue is the capacity of a community college to take recent high school graduates and get them through the program. Students need help navigating their way. So for high school students entering community college, we directed 20 to 30 percent of our funding to support systems. I don’t know whether the system is overly complicated as compared to what it might be, or whether the students — even the ones who have earned a scholarship — are less able to stand on their own two feet than they should be. In either event, they need a lot of handholding when they get there so they don’t get lost.
Grove had hoped his program would be a model for others, but that hasn’t happened. It’s hard to fight a system that values academic degrees and discounts job training, he believes.
As a Jewish child in Hungary, Grove hid from the Nazis. At the age of 20, after the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution, he fled to the U.S. City College of New York was his first step to a PhD in engineering. He became a founder of Intel.
Bernie Marcus, founder of Home Depot, and John Ratzenberger, carpenter turned actor (Cliff Clavin), have teamed up on a campaign to encourage young people to consider careers as skilled trades workers. Working with the Marcus-funded Center for America, Ratzenberger is making a documentary called Industrial Tsunami on the skilled trades.
Tracking is out of fashion these days, but Santa Fe high schools’ three tracks give students a choice, reports KRQE News 13. Some take the most rigorous academic classes to apply for highly selective colleges, others aim for a less-selective college or university and some plan to pursue a technical career, go to community college or enter the military.
The third track engages students who’d otherwise be at risk for dropping out.
Welding teacher Al Trujillo said offering hands-on training is an important tool in keeping Hispanic students in school.
“Here, they learn a skill and their education becomes more valuable to them,” he said. “Without something like this, they may end up having a low-paying, low-skilled job.”
Moises Venegas, founder of the Quinto Sol research group, worries about lower expectations for Hispanic students.
Students who are pursuing a career in the military or a tech college are told to take a “workplace readiness” course, but they are not encouraged to take any AP classes and they take fewer language and science classes.
New Mexico raised graduation requirements this year, requiring all high school students to take four years of math and enroll in at least one AP or honors course or college-credit class. State policy — all students will be ready for college or a career — means that career-oriented graduates “need the same abilities as a college freshman,” says Melissa Lomax, head of the state’s career technical and work force education bureau.
Melecio Sanchez, 17, who just finished his junior year at Santa Fe High, has already received one welding certificate that allows him to work with heavy metals. He has a job with a welding company in Bernalillo and said he may attend college after he works and saves some money. He has several uncles who are welders.
“I like it because you get to work with fire, and you learn how to build things,” he said. “You will also make good money doing this.”
New Mexico students lag in reading and math skills compared to the national average; graduation rates are low. I prefer Santa Fe’s honesty to the pretense that all students will take the same classes and graduate with college-level skills.