More vocational training long overdue
March 7, 2014
Mr. Speer's op-ed in The Union titled "Tech education needed to fill high-demand jobs of tomorrow" primarily addresses the need for more skills-based education (vocational training) that prepares students for immediate entry into a career, stating that "traditional colleges aren't the only answer."
I strongly support most of his views but feel they missed some issues and solutions. I also disagree with his implication that up to this point, community colleges have mostly met that need.
My contention is, that as a country we have never addressed the real-world needs of filling skilled job openings and the high numbers of un/underemployed. If we had, we would not have so many high school dropouts, crime, people on welfare or unemployment benefits and young to middle-aged people stuck working at minimum wage dead-end jobs.
The answer does not lie in throwing our tax money at the problem. It lies in the structure of our educational system. We have yet to look at many parts of Europe that "got it" many decades ago. Not everyone is academically inclined or has the funds for college. Many have high aptitudes in hands-on activities. When these people are trained they often earn more money, have more job security and enjoy their career of choice more. And at the end, they go into a career of their choosing at a fair wage. Unless those with a bachelor's degree major in a technical field, they are not competitive. Hence, the current emergence of a thriving industry of private vocational schools, where you can get in, get out and go into a career of your choosing and get paid plenty.
My research and experience in the field goes back to the 1960s, so is very dated, but even at that time, the preceding situation existed. Different parts of Europe have developed varying systems, but the general approach is assessing students at an early age for public education, either for academic or vocational careers. These systems reduce the heavy burden of student loans, whether paid by students, parents or taxpayers.
A specific example would be Switzerland:
1. At fifth grade (age 12) there is a split to secondary or primary school based on academic performance. High academic performers automatically qualify for secondary school. Students also may qualify based on results of a comprehensive test. This split was recently modified to provide additional opportunity to qualify. Students who are exceptionally gifted are sent to a school that is academically advanced for sixth through ninth grades. They are then fast-tracked to university for careers requiring a degree, such as law or medicine.
2. Students who don't qualify for secondary school remain in primary school. The next year, they are again given an opportunity to qualify.
3. Grades five through nine are high-school level and students graduate at ages 16-17. They are exposed to higher math and will take "sniffer" apprenticeships during summer vacation times, based on academic and skills-based testing. Students self-select the careers of interest to help them learn more about career choices.
4. At the end of ninth grade (age 16-17), graduates are hired on as an apprentice at a company and begin receiving a modest salary. Apprenticeships last three to four years. At the end of that time, the company may retain them as a regular employee or they may apply to another company.
5. During apprenticeship training, students are also required to take one out of five days for theoretical training specific to their trade (such as materials science, finance etc.). All apprentices must learn rudimentary civics and government, as well as life skills such as balancing a budget, presented as college-level courses.
6. After apprenticeships, a student can immediately begin a career, without debt. They are well prepared for the job market and assume their role as an independent adult in society.
This example would be too extreme given our political system. However, it involves some important components that we could employ on a trial or pilot basis. We have done this for charter schools with some success. This would require our political leaders to stop tinkering with the existing educational system and look at the realities of our labor market. Just increasing the number of public vocational schools would drastically help. Then our tax dollars could be allocated in a significantly more productive way for everyone.
Julie Reaney lives in Grass Valley.