Pride in your work
In Studs Terkel’s 1974 book, Working, he took a tape recorder out into the country, interviewing dozens of people about what they did at work all day, and how they felt about what they did. For many involved in what were considered blue collar professions, there was a sense of accomplishment in creating new products and in repairing things when they break.
“I think a laborer feels that he’s the low man. Not so much that he works with his hands…” said Carl Murray Bates, a stonemason, speaking to Terkel. “Many that works with his hands takes pride in his work.” Although they were often physically tired by the nature of their work and the long hours that they spent doing it, the work allowed people to have a better life.
Shifting from college-focus
In America, the education system vacillates between ends of the spectrum for any issue that one would care to name, returning to the center on occasion. This is evident in the recent emphasis on ensuring students have multiple pathways to post-graduate success, whether in a traditional college track, certification and training for career fields, or supports for joining the military.
This shift away from the promotion of the traditional college track to the near exclusion of any other alternatives, even for those students who expressed zero interest in doing such a thing, is a good thing indeed. One hopes that such a focus on ensuring school serves the needs of its students remains at the forefront.
“Our school system doesn’t need to create kids who are good at school,” writes Shelley Wright at MindShift. “Instead, we need to create an environment that engages learners, fosters creativity, and puts responsibility for learning where it belongs — with our students.”
Part of the issue stemmed from cuts to education budgets across the nation. When funds are scarce, anything not directly and clearly tied to activities that will increase test scores tends to be fair game.
For decades, the forerunners of the modern career and technical education (CTE) courses, then known as “vocational education,” were tracked for the mechanically or technically gifted. But they were also perceived as courses of last resort for students identified as academic strugglers.
So as funds tightened and the need for improved test scores in core academic subjects skyrocketed, many states cut back or completely eliminated CTE courses that had been a mainstay for decades. Wood and metal shop, automotive repair, cosmetology—all staple CTE courses that led to careers for the students who took those courses, enjoyed them, and realized that they could make a career out of doing what they loved–were eliminated or severely curtailed.
Students were pushed towards a more traditional academic track, with a traditional academic outcome to follow: the four-year college and a pathway to a white collar job. Which worked for spme, but left many excluded from the American dream.
Degree is no longer a guarantee
“The problem is, they’re trying to meet the future by doing what they did in the past, and on the way they’re alienating millions of kids who don’t see any purpose in going to school. When we went to school, we were kept there with a story which is if you worked hard and did well, and got a college degree, you would have a job,” said Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on fostering creativity in schools, in his TED talk on the subject. “Our kids don’t believe that! And they’re right not to, by the way. You’re better having a degree than not, but it’s not a guarantee anymore, and particularly not if the route to it marginalizes most of the things that you think are important about yourself.”
So, as we approach 2017, we’re right to know that what we’ve been trying simply doesn’t work for a large number of our students, and that even with a college degree, success isn’t guaranteed.
Talent and skill shortages
For some labor fields, this lack of attention and support have led to critical staffing shortages now and in the near future, unless things continue to change. Take for example the average age of a master plumber in the state of Texas: 58. Understanding that it takes several years of work experience and additional training to obtain that status, it’s still not sustainable.
So at a time in which thoughts of retirement may not be far off, that’s the average age. As with all averages, many are older and still working in the field. Finding qualified plumbers, electricians, and HVAC mechanics, especially in commercial fields, is a daunting and competitive task. The competition to hire and retain those candidates illustrates a central theme.
There are simply not enough employees with the right combination of skills, training, and experience to go around, and that’s a shame. Not only for the companies who desperately want to hire them, but for those individuals who could be a part of that hiring boom if they only had access to adequate and affordable training programs.
CTE courses paying back
The revitalized focus on ensuring students have access to CTE courses as a part of their high school curriculum is beginning to pay dividends. Research has shown that, nationwide, nearly 95 percent of high school students currently take CTE-oriented classes. An additional 30 percent are focusing on CTE certification fields rather than collegiate-prep curricula.
These courses are not only a pipeline to a better career opportunity for students, but also an opportunity to keep students in school and engaged in what they learn.
Many of these students, who all too often see no reality in connection between what they are interested in and what they are learning, are those at risk for dropping out, physically or mentally, and have a lesser high school experience as a result. The new CTE frameworks exceed what the public thinks of as “vocational education.” Students now have pathways in multiple avenues of career and technical education, and the classes teach much more than merely technical skills.
“When not presented in a narrow way, CTE is about problem-solving and troubleshooting, not just dexterity,” says Mike Rose, an education professor at UCLA and the author of The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, speaking to the New York Times. This approach on soft skills—the characteristics of quality cooperation, interaction, and communication in the workplace—is vital for students on CTE and college tracks alike.
Something we can all agree on
As the political climate changes, it’s refreshing to note that the value of CTE courses appears to be one area of agreement. On the campaign trail earlier this year, Hillary Clinton discussed the value that CTE adds to education. Her comments were echoed by vice president-elect Pence. As governor of Indiana, Mr. Pence said, “all students deserve the same opportunity for success, whether they want to go to college or start their career right out of high school. This is not about a Plan A and a Plan B. This is about two Plan A’s.”
We all deserve to be what we want to be, in a career field that we find personally rewarding, both emotionally and fiscally.
It’s insensitive and imprudent to not offer students opportunities to achieve their definition of success as it works for them. Here’s to hoping that the pendulum of change continues to favor ensuring that students can identify their own pathways, in fields that they never may have had the opportunity to dream of.