The need for skilled workers has never been greater in the US, except perhaps during wartime, when women took over what had traditionally been men’s trades out of pure national need. Rosie the Riveter was the icon of WWII’s manufacturing push and proved that it’s not just men who are capable of or interested in the skilled trades.
Manufacturers are desperate for qualified employees who are neither college graduates with degrees nor high school dropouts with no STEM skills. What they want are employees who have a solid general education combined with specific knowledge and skills that benefits the employer. Welders, electricians, carpenters, miners, machine operators, maintenance technicians and hundreds of other tradespersons are needed to build the things that will make America great again.
Vocational education has always been something of a pejorative phrase in both parental and educational circles. It was often considered a path of last resort for under-performing students who had difficulty with the classic public-school practice of didactic and often abstract education. When the phrase “vocational school” is mentioned parents conjure up visions of “Happy Days” Fonzie in his leather jacket working on a jalopy in auto shop or some teen comedy movie stereotype of the incompetent nerd making bird houses in wood shop.
Parents naturally want to believe that their children are all doctors, lawyers and rocket scientists, but the truth is more banal because most children grow up and work in much less prestigious or advanced careers, even if they have college degrees. But parents are ever hopeful so they push their children towards academic excellence and advanced college degrees. There’s nothing wrong with that because every child needs to have before them a vision of success and prosperity that drives them towards excellence and a college degree is a proven lifetime economic benefit.
But the truth is that the country doesn’t really need another MBA or another lawyer or another liberal arts graduate, it needs people who know how to build and fix things, people who know how to wield a hammer or operate a CNC milling machine or weld pipelines and steel structures, people who know how to build and maintain things like the deteriorating bridges on our highway systems.
Looking down our noses at vocational education dooms many children to frustration and corrosion of self-esteem as they aspire to be rocket scientists but end up moving boxes in a warehouse because the job openings for rocket scientists are few and far between.
So, it’s time to expand our vocational educational system beyond the academic outliers and underachievers and make vocational education a part of the required high-school curriculum. Every student should be exposed to the panoply of vocational skills that the country needs in ways that allow them to experiment and learn just what it means to hold down a job and gives them the opportunity to find skills that they find interesting and enjoyable. We need to do this before we send them off to college so that at the very least they have an idea of what they want to be before they burden themselves with tens of thousands of dollars in educational debt.
To do this we need to solicit, or even mandate the participation of those who directly benefit from well-educated and skilled young people entering the work force: America’s manufacturing industry. We need to get industry to fund the technological infrastructure needed to give students these opportunities and we need to build more facilities that provide places where every student can sample many different trades.
One of the best places to start is by using as much of the underutilized factory and warehouse space that exists in Colorado Springs as possible, which can be converted into multi-discipline learning laboratories teaching everything from carpentry to machine-tool operation and programming to welding to manufacturing robot programming to wind turbine maintenance. Whatever skills our employers need they need to pay to equip school districts to teach and we need to expose all of our young people to vocational skill-building, not just the academic underachievers.
No young person really knows what they want to do as they enter high school and it’s a travesty that we send many of them off to college and expect them to discover their true passion in life in the elevated academic sphere with its limited choices and philosophical airs when it may be that they would be far more satisfied with a vocation that guarantees them a job and the self-esteem-affirming experience of not being buried in college loan debt for half their lives.