Stop Stigmatizing Vocational Education

By Andrew Browning

America is in the early stages of a dramatic industrial renaissance. New technologies, global economic trends, and domestic policy changes are all helping to increase the importance of basic material outputs to the U.S. Economy.

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have opened up vast resources of domestic natural gas and oil, generating new economic frontiers. And various factors -- such as rising wages in Asia -- are helping to make domestic manufacturing more competitive, bringing jobs and investment to the U.S.

The private sector understands these changes and is ready to embrace them. But our educational system remains a step or two behind -- it has not yet realized that different knowledge and skills are now required to succeed in the workforce. America needs to reassess what a "good job" is and help students prepare for the millions of highly paid energy and manufacturing careers that will be available in the coming years.

The Society of Manufacturing Engineers predicts that the number of unfilled jobs in the energy and manufacturing sector could grow to 3 million by 2015. This concern is echoed by the National Research Council, which notes that "the current pipeline of STEM-capable students and workers is inadequate to meet workforce needs." The skills gap is real, and a failure to find a solution will jeopardize the nation’s economic future.

The Discovery Channel's Mike Rowe, of Dirty Jobs fame, put it well in his comments to the Senate Committee on Commerce when he said:

We've elevated the importance of "higher education" to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled "alternative." Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as "vocational consolation prizes," best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of "shovel-ready" jobs for a society that doesn't encourage people to pick up a shovel.

He's right. In addition to reinforcing the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, educators must not lose sight of the importance of vocational and skills-based education, particularly during this energy renaissance. While many companies are starting to recognize this vital need, more of our high schools need to embrace this reality.

Vocational education must again become part of our student's daily study. This is where young adults begin to learn and appreciate the hands-on skills required to succeed in these new careers. PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that over 1 million jobs could be created in the next few years in the energy and manufacturing industry. These jobs -- these careers -- will require technical and hands-on skills that are not taught in today's shop-class-free high schools.

In addition to providing more vocational training, we must help high schools give better counseling to graduating students regarding postsecondary educational opportunities. This will allow students and parents to better assess the benefits of vocational or community college as opposed to a university education. A recent study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University makes it clear that many four-year degrees no longer provide a guarantee of financial security. As the report notes, "what you make depends on what you take." To better prepare students for success in today's economy, high schools will need to provide a more balanced approach to educational and career counseling.

We should work to reduce the unwarranted stigma associated with vocational schools, technical programs, and junior-college degrees while also better promoting STEM-related studies at the university level. Contrary to what today's students have been told since grade school, the quickest way to a six-figure salary in today's workforce is to enter one of these vocational or STEM-focused programs. According to Rigzone.com, the average salary in the oil-and-gas industry is $98,000. The site also reports that in 2012, the largest year-over-year wage increases were amongst workers whose highest level of education was a high-school diploma or technical certificate.

In the manufacturing sector, there is a large and increasing number of jobs outside of the traditional blue-collar categories. New high-tech manufacturing processes require specific skills and education that are being taught through on-the-job training programs and public-private education partnerships. In Pennsylvania, companies developing the Marcellus Shale have partnered with community colleges, technical schools, and universities to ensure Pennsylvanians are trained to benefit from the state's resource abundance.

In Houston, the Consumer Energy Alliance partners with the University of Houston and more than 90 academic groups and energy companies to hold academic competitions throughout the year, culminating in the Energy Day Festival every October. The goal is to educate students and their families about careers in energy, technology, conservation, and related fields, all with the hope of sparking students' interest in STEM related study.

To echo Mike Rowe, we need to reassess what "work" means. We must elevate technical, skill-based, and "blue collar" careers; these are indeed "good, well-paying jobs." We should no longer marginalize on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs.

And our schools are a good place to start.

Andrew Browning is executive vice president of the Consumer Energy Alliance and founder of the Arctic Dialogue and Study Tour, which is hosted by the University of Nordland in Bodø, Norway. Mr. Browning previously served as a Clinton White House appointee to the U.S. Department of Energy.

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