Reconsidering Vocational Technical Education

I recently hired a general contractor for window repair and installation. He came highly recommended but I had to enter a five-week queue before he could begin work. On the day he arrived, as I began watching him pull out the tools of his trade with orchestrated speed and nimbleness, I asked him if he had always wanted to be a contractor. He told me that he actually had a B.A. degree from a local college, but when he graduated some 15 years ago, he was unable to find employment. He was forced to move back to his parents’ house during which time he began painting office buildings and doing minor repair jobs in order to start paying back his rather hefty student loan. But this was also a period of self-discovery for him. He started experiencing the joy of being physically active and working with his hands, and all the while being paid for it. Encouraged by his newfound success, he then decided to sign up for classes at a trade school and was able to receive a certificate within just a few months. He told me that at first he was really worried about getting customers, buying tools, and turning out quality work. But as it turned out, he was able to hone his skills very quickly so that within several months, through a combination of word of mouth and taking out local ads, his phone would not stop ringing. He realized he was now in a position to form a viable business and hire help in order to keep up with rapidly growing customer demand. He described a fulfilling career and emphatically expressed that he wouldn’t have it any other way!


I couldn’t help thinking, how many other young people would choose a career in trade if given the exposure or opportunity to gain practical training. In recent years, wide spread campaigns to promote a college going culture have contributed to the perception that a four-year degree is the gateway to social mobility and gainful employment and therefore the “best” choice for high school students. The push for “college-for-all” in the United States might partly stem from the misconception that vocational-technical education is designed for underachieving or unmotivated students. Such perceptions might help explain why students in the US are much less likely to be presented with the option of pursuing technical-vocational education compared to their European counterparts where technical education options are standard practice. In Germany, for example, secondary students can choose either a technical or academic track but are also allowed to switch between these tracks.


Logistically, the ability to enter certain professions or indulging in the pursuit of a graduate program necessitates having a college degree. On the other hand, some might insist that there exist unquantifiable benefits associated with a four-year liberal arts education not tethered to any such pursuits. For example, it can create a context where young people gain cultural capital by socializing, developing open-mindedness, and exploring new ideas. But perhaps the most fundamental lure of a college degree is the prospect for well-paying employment. In fact, four decades of surveying first-year college students indicates that the majority of students have consistently rated “to be able to get a better job” as “very important” (e.g., 84.8% in 2016, 85.2% in 2015, 86.1% in 2014, 86.3% in 2013, 87.9% in 2012) [https://www.heri.ucla.edu/monographs/TheAmericanFreshman2016.pdf].


Unfortunately, a substantial proportion of students is under the impression that the mere pursuit of a college degree is a ticket to a well paying job. Although college graduates might ultimately find themselves more cultivated or well-rounded, many still yet face the reality that they don’t possess the industry-specific skills needed to make a smooth transition into the job market.


Colleges and universities are not obliged to guarantee a return on students’ time and financial investment which, according to a report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, has left some 37% of students employed in jobs for which only a high school degree is required. More stark is the scenario where students who drop out of college are confronted by unemployment as well as substantial student loan burdens.


Recent reports indicate that more than 3 million students graduated from US high schools in 2017, and of the 68% who began college for the first time, some 40% will drop out within 6 years (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2018). One must also keep in mind the steady increase in college enrollment among first-generation, low income and minority students. These students are much more likely to rely on student loans in funding their education. It might be even more difficult for this group of students to shoulder un- or under- employment, especially if they drop out.


On the other hand, according to the US Department of Education 2009 report (see graph below), students with technical credentials were more likely to be employed in a job related to their field of study than students with academic credentials [https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/ctes/figures/fig_2016107-2.asp].


Percentage of workers who were employed in a job related to their field of study, among 2003–04 beginning postsecondary students who earned an occupational or academic credential: 2009


In fact, a recent NPR report (High-Paying Trade Jobs Sit Empty, While High School Grads Line Up For University, April 25, 2018) highlights the alarming nationwide shortage of qualified trade professionals. According to the report, despite the fact that many trade professions offer higher salaries than the average salary across many states ($54,000), and even though construction and health care professions will account for one-third of new jobs through 2022, currently some 70% of construction companies cannot find qualified workers. Moreover, the report projects that in the next five years there will be 68% more jobs related to building/repair of roads, bridges, and airports than there are people training for them. While high school students are universally advised to pursue a four-year degree and while many college graduates endure unemployment, many trade positions remain vacant.


Although the discussion of college application should continue in high school advising sessions, I think it is also important that students (as well as parents) are presented with information about technical education options. I think student-centered advising should incorporate a plethora of feasible paths to life and career success. In my focus groups, I listen to many high school students who express curiosity in other-than-college trajectories. Many tell me how they would love to someday run their own business or wished their high schools offered classes in woodworking, cosmetology, mechanics or pet grooming. As young as they are, they instinctively understand the value of learning tangible skills, leveraging their personal interests, or gaining technical expertise as a life-long pursuit or “fall back option”.


It is encouraging to see that many states are now focusing on technical-vocational education in preparation for the rapidly growing shortage of skilled workers needed to rebuild and repair the nation’s decaying infrastructure. The state of California for example, is spending $200 million on improving both the delivery as well as perceptions of technical-vocational education. Reversing negative perceptions can be a slow process. As a way of achieving better traction, discussions with students and parents ought to incorporate the often overlooked benefits of pursuing technical-vocational education and trade profession trajectories.


These are some of the positive factors associated with technical-vocational education and trade professions:


  • Promotion of high school graduation. Recent studies show that students attending career and technical high schools are about 21 percentage points more likely to graduate high school [https://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/edfp_a_00224].

  • Diverse learning styles and range of skills. Technical education can be easily designed to meet the diverse range of student skills and learning styles.

  • Presents a good fit for people who: > are interested in or otherwise need to enter the job market shortly after school. > have an overarching interest in a specific subject area. > prefer to explore a few fields before making a life-time commitment to one occupation. > prefer hands-on or physical work.

  • Focused curriculum. Compared to a liberal arts education, technical education does not include taking classes outside the field of interest.

  • Time investment. Completion of a technical degree generally requires much less time.

  • Financial cost. On average, the completion of a trade school degree or certificate costs substantially less than the completion of a four-year degree. In addition, many schools have begun to offer attractive aid packages enabling many students to gain a trade degree and training with no out-of-pocket costs.

  • Life security. Relatively high probability of gainful employment can allow people to establish confidence, a stable lifestyle, and financial security while maintaining the option of pursuing further education.

  • Transferable skills. Technical-vocational education and professions, in addition to providing specific expertise and experience, can lead to the acquisition of transferable skills including adherence to precision, organizational skills, knowledge of regulations, social skills, time management, financial planning competence, etc.

  • Outsource-proof. Technical/trade workers enjoy relative job security and autonomy. Many technical jobs cannot be outsourced to foreign countries. There will always be an immediate need for construction specialists, electricians, welders, mechanics, carpenters, plumbers, welders, and skilled health care professionals.




Shaki Asgari is a Senior Research Associate for the Program Evaluation and School Improvement Services Division at Measurement Incorporated

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