Let us go back in time 22 years, shall we? 1996…high school woodshop. I can still smell the wood and glue and remember an industrial building full of the latest woodworking machinery. It was an amazing site to see for a 17-year-old boy looking at options for the future. The teacher allowed us to dream up whatever we wanted to build (as long as we paid for the materials). I was obsessed with baseball, so naturally I made a baseball bat. Louisville has nothing on me! I also made an end table, chessboard, and a few bowls, which my mother proudly displayed all over the house.
I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life at 17, but having options to work with my hands gave me other possibilities to think about besides attending college. Back in the day, my high school had an automotive class, woodshop, metal shop, textile work, pottery, quilting, cooking, home economics, graphic design, drafting, engineering, and more. The kids that went to college were high achievers academically or students playing sports and wanting to extend beyond high school. Everyone else got a job or went to vocational programs to begin life.
Fast forward to today…I had the opportunity during my administration program to be apart of a Williams Act walk through at a local high school. The goal of the Williams Act is to ensure school buildings are clean and functioning and students have access to textbooks. During the walkthrough we toured what used to be the woodshop building and the metal shop. It was dark and there were spider webs in the corners and on the windows. It was obvious the building hadn’t been used in quite some time. The machines sat, no longer cutting and shaping for young students. I have to say my heart sank as we walked out of that building. It was disheartening to see that woodshop and metal shop were not important enough to keep as options to equip and provide valuable skills for the next generation of skilled laborers.
Recently I had a conversation with my father-in-law about the high school woodshop building not being used. He has worked with sheet metal in the HVAC industry for over 40+ years. He commented that it has been difficult to get apprentices at his shop. He also mentioned that the young workers often lack work ethic and basic problem solving skills. In his line of work, everything is fast pace and often times workers have to think out of the box to solve mathematical problems on the fly. With deadlines and machinery, workers have to work efficiently by prioritizing jobs. Unfortunately students in high schools are not being exposed to these kinds of trades, which are highly respectable jobs that make great incomes and come with good benefits.
With colleges lowering costs and giving more access to many different students, the labor forces in many trades are suffering as a result. Just last April, npr.org published an article titled, “High-Paying Trade Jobs Sit Empty, While High School Grads Line Up For University.”
But high school graduates have been so effectively encouraged to get a bachelor’s instead of thinking about a trade or vocational school, that high-paid jobs requiring shorter and less expensive training are going unfilled. This affects those students and also poses a real threat to the economy.
High school students are not getting exposed to a variety of opportunities. Many jobs that do not require a 4 year degree pay very well. Check out what a master plumber makes or a sheet metal worker here. So why do we push college for ALL students?
In NPR’s article, they say that the parents are, “definitely harder to convince because there is that stigma of the six-pack-totin’ ironworker,” said Greg Christiansen, who runs the iron workers training program. Added Kairie Pierce, apprenticeship and college director for the Washington State Labor Council of the AFL-CIO: “It sort of has this connotation of being a dirty job. ‘It’s hard work — I want something better for my son or daughter.’ ” There is a generalization from parents that college is the only avenue to better yourself and achieve the “American dream.”
How do we convince parents, educators at the high school level, and politicians that a 4 year degree is not for everyone? In most cases the cost of a 4 year degree hangs on you for years as you pay back student loans only to get a job that doesn’t exactly pay well.
I believe the answer to our dilemma is tracking students for career options that best match their intellect and abilities, while keeping their interests at the forefront. We have this stigma around the word “tracking” as a negative thing for students. Yet most countries do track to help students find a path that works for them. Tracking has been known to target certain clientele, however does it have to be taken as a negative? With so many career choices that offer a great living with benefits, why does a 4 year degree have to be pushed so hard? Why can’t a trade or vocational school be a possible option? If a young man is happier learning the inner workings of a diesel engine, why should that be deemed as less valuable than a heart surgeon? Both take years of knowledge to perfect and are crucial to the ongoing productivity of our economy.
In this NY Times article, Topeka, KS High School’s Auto Mechanics teacher Dean Fairweather says, “The urgency here is that the workforce in their 50s and 60s that learned a trade skill set are close to retirement. We need high school students to fill these gaps.” This comment reflects what the NPR article highlighted. Who is going to fix your car in the future, empty your trash, fix your air conditioning unit, or troubleshoot your appliances?
College is a great option for those that desire that route, I’m living proof of that. But having programs in high school to encourage vocational training is equally important and should not be a back seat. The ultimate goal of education is to benefit the student.
What are your thoughts on higher education vs trade school?
What do you think of tracking?
Let me know and comment below.