If we're so big on measuring results in education, isn't it time to get serious about an approach that links knowledge and training with good-paying jobs?
The time is ripe. Hardly a week goes by without another warning from a business or education-reform group that too many of our students graduate without the skills to compete in a global marketplace. And when the nation's governors meet in February for a National Education Summit, high on the agenda is a discussion of new strategies for helping students “build bridges between high school, college and work.”
The trouble is, if you try to bring vocational education into the discussion, the first thing that enters many folks' minds are the guys in last-period shop class, the ones who seem to know their way around an engine block, but not algebra II. Fonzie in Happy Days, the 1970s sitcom set in the 1950s, was a voc-ed guy — cool, but not what parents hold up as a career role model. Everybody knew Fonzie wasn't headed to college. And college is the one sure path to the good life, right?
Well, yes and no. Yes, if you're willing to morph your concept of college to include other post-secondary educational opportunities, from community colleges to tech schools to professional-certification and workplace-training programs. Occupational certification has increased by 50% during the past decade, according to a recent study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
No, if you're talking about only four-year institutions, where a third of students don't qualify for degrees in six years.
“The last thing we need is another college dropout, saddled with student loans and looking for a job without a marketable skill,” says Gerry Hogan, a volunteer advocate for vocational education and the chairman of Endurance Business Media.
Clide Cassity, director of Pinellas Technical Education Centers in Florida, adds, “Yet somehow we've gotten ourselves in the situation where we believe that college is all that counts, that nothing else matters.”
Even though good jobs increasingly require what used to be college-level training, most still don't demand four-year degrees. Of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' estimates of the fastest-growing occupations between 2002 and 2012, six of the top 10 don't require bachelor's degrees. And many non-degree occupations crying out for workers are career fields with salaries that can support healthy families — provided employees have higher-level skills.
Kay Martin, CEO of the Francis Tuttle Oklahoma Technology Center in Oklahoma City, says students who graduate in Tuttle's automotive program “after a few years can earn $100,000.” And there are similar career opportunities in health technology, the construction trades and public safety.
In an era of outsourcing, here's more good news: These high-skill jobs aren't going anywhere. You're not going to call someone in India to fix your car or your plumbing. And if your house is on fire in Ohio, help is not coming from Mexico.
Career and technical education — the term voc-ed pros have adopted to avoid the Fonzie factor — has the advantage of relevance. For many students, “academics suddenly make sense,” says Robin White, president of the Great Oaks Institute of Technology and Career Development in Cincinnati. “Geometry makes more sense in construction technology than just drawing circles and squares on paper.” And the best programs can tout real-world accountability.
Tom Applegate, executive dean of Austin Community College, says, “All our programs are labor-market driven. If employers don't want our grads, we don't want the program.”
In Florida, Cassity has lines at both ends of some Pinellas Tech programs: Students wait for class slots, and companies wait to hire them. Two-thirds of Pinellas Tech students complete requirements for professional certification or state licensing, and 82% end up employed in their field of study.
So what's not to like about voc-ed? “It's the high schools that have run amok,” says Phyllis Hudecki, executive director of the Oklahoma Business and Education Council, a non-profit education advocacy group. Even its defenders acknowledge that, in the past, voc-ed has been used “as an avoidance mechanism for kids who couldn't do academic work,” Hudecki says. “And that's still out there. I want to make sure students are really learning, and then turn them loose” in voc-ed tracks.
Approaches such as the Southern Regional Education Board's “High Schools That Work” project have proved that integrating vocational education with academic courses can accelerate achievement at the high school level. The trick is combining a no-compromise academic program with vocational education that matches students with business mentors and that guarantees them career and academic counseling. That may be tough for stressed-out high schools, but it's doable.
Easier to model are proven post-secondary programs such as Cassity's in Florida and Applegate's in Texas. They fight for funding, yet they have track records business leaders and legislators should admire. So why not reward them for delivering what the market needs?
The demand for trained — and retrained — workers is only going to increase, perhaps in unexpected ways.
“Our fastest-growing group of students by percentage,” Applegate says, “is those with master's degrees.”
Ben Brown writes for Southern Living and its sister magazines, and he is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.