At the risk of stating the obvious, we can now definitively conclude that removing wood shop, metal shop, auto mechanics and other hands-on, real world learning experiences from most public schools was a bad idea.
Whose idea was that, anyway?
As it turns out, our society and economy need people who are well-trained in the skilled trades and other technical fields.
About a generation ago, society suddenly decided that going to college and getting at least a bachelor’s degree in a liberal arts field was the best course of action for one’s life, and that everyone should do it. So began a nonstop barrage from every direction into the minds of young students that college is the only route to success and fulfillment.
Consequently, embracing a college-for-all mantra for one if not two generations has crippled our country.
One embarrassing example is our nation’s inability to manufacture enough microchip processors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our reliance on foreign suppliers and our lack of capacity to produce them domestically caused a dramatic decrease in availability of everything from new cars to home appliances to laptop computers.
This persistent skills gap has had other far-reaching implications as well, like the worker shortage facing the construction industry. In the next decade, according to a report from Rocky Mountain Mechanical Contractors Association, specialty trade contractor employment in Colorado is expected to grow by 28%.
In another example, the dramatic shortfall of workers in our state’s talent-depleted health-care sector — a 64,000-worker deficit by 2026 — is a primary concern of the Colorado Hospital Association.
There are lessons here. Have we learned them?
The truth about college
If we dare to impress upon our youngsters that honesty is the best policy, then we had better demonstrate that with some straight talk about the present-day value proposition of a traditional four-year college degree compared to training credentials in technical fields.
College is dramatically overpriced. A college degree is not a guarantee of reliable employment or a well-paying career. The outstanding $1.6 trillion in federal student loan debt is a looming crisis for both the individual borrowers and the greater U.S. economy.
Nationally, a four-year degree from a highly selective, private liberal arts college runs in the neighborhood of $70,000 per year. In Colorado, the average annual in-state college tuition is $12,648 which, according to a Common Sense Institute report, reflects a 240% increase from 2002 to 2020.
Also, many of today’s employers are less impressed with college degrees and don’t see them as a reliable proxy for determining a prospective employee’s workforce readiness. Rather, employers are looking for specific skill sets to meet their mission. And many of them desperately need, and struggle to find, workers with good old-fashioned technical skills.
To be clear, every student should graduate high school properly prepared to succeed in college, but that doesn’t mean it is the right path for everyone. It is not.
And don’t get me wrong. There is much to be said for a four-year college education and learning for learning’s sake. But increasingly, it’s an unaffordable luxury.
However well-intended — or to whatever degree it was once useful — the college-for-all mindset is now hamstringing our country’s productivity. It’s also robbing people of opportunity as so many of the in-demand jobs in technical fields don’t require a college degree, pay prevailing wages, and provide opportunities for career advancement.
It’s time for our nation’s public schools to come out of their 30-year trance and get clear-eyed about what’s at stake.
This is a golden opportunity to dispel outdated perceptions that the skilled trades are universally dirty and dangerous jobs. It’s time to counter the negative stigma surrounding the idea of trading the traditional college route for a different kind of educational experience.
Extreme innovations in technology are forcing radical shifts in the workforce and, consequently, drastic changes are needed in how we educate students.
A new trajectory
At the K-12 level, career and technical pathways should not be viewed or treated as less than a college-preparatory track. Both should be rigorous, relevant, and aligned to the real world.
There are multiple pathways to reach personal success, fulfillment, and well-being. Obtaining a four-year college degree is one way, but not the only way.
Thankfully, there are some signs of hope. What used to be called vocational training has begun to re-emerge under a newer name, Career and Technical Education, or CTE. It covers a broad spectrum of interests and industries, including career clusters like construction, advanced manufacturing, computer science, and health care. It also includes emerging fields like robotics, drone piloting, renewable energy, cyber security, and digital marketing.
All of these are areas in which students can engage and learn with excitement, earn industry-recognized credentials without the requirement of a college degree, and become immediately employable.
These are, in many cases, pathways out of poverty and into prosperity.
Here in Colorado, we can be proud to boast some great examples of innovative CTE programs embedded into the K-12 experience, plus plenty more opportunities on the horizon.
What’s fascinating about these programs is that they fit neatly into the needs of their local communities, rather than trying to plug into a one-size-fits-all model. Not all of them are what most people think of when they hear the acronym CTE — robotics, 3D printing, etc. — though some of those flourish in Colorado as well, most notably in the St. Vrain School District northwest of Denver.
In the Eastern Plains community of Peyton, for example, a state-of-the-art woods-manufacturing program has thrived in the local high school for the past seven years. Launched by the district’s superintendent Tim Kistler and a serial entrepreneur-turned-educator named Dean Mattson, the program trains students to work on the latest, highest-quality equipment to manufacture commercial and household cabinetry.
Companies donate millions of dollars of equipment to the district, and then essentially use the school shop as a showroom floor to demonstrate the machinery at work. It’s a win-win for the district and the businesses, but the real winners are the students, who gain highly marketable skills.
Then there’s the bovine reproduction program in the Prairie School District, in the Eastern Plains ranching community of New Raymer, where students get experience with artificial insemination of cattle. Many of the students will move into working in their families’ ranching business, so knowing the latest in reproductive technology is critical to thriving in that industry.
The essential message here is that schools, especially in the post-Covid era, must help steer students to meaningful learning that extends beyond reading, writing, and math and into practical applications of those basic academic skills.
Much has been written in recent years about the toll on student mental health exacted by the pandemic. Few people, however, seem to recognize that one of the surest ways to help restore mental health is to give young people a sense of self-efficacy.
And what better way to do that than to help them pursue their own interests, strengths, and values, whether that leads them to the ivy-covered buildings of a college campus, to a manufacturing facility, a modern ranching business, or a construction site.
For this three-legged stool to stand, schools must bolster their menu of career connected learning opportunities that attract and engage students. Schools should help translate the needs of business into curriculum and training and expose students to all the interesting ways in which their education is truly relevant to the work world.
As that happens, students gain a tangible sense of what kinds of problems they want to solve in the world. When young people find their areas of interests — maybe even their passion–psychological barriers come down and students become impressively absorbent and motivated.
Finally, then, what’s left is the role of the business community in the success of CTE programs. Employers belong at the table, alongside educators, when schools are designing career pathways for students. This is not without controversy, but any misplaced and territorial thinking that suggests profit-driven businesses shouldn’t exert influence on the public education system is part of the problem.
Employers are uniquely qualified to inform the knowledge, skills, and behaviors students will need to be successful in the workplace. They can also provide work-based learning opportunities for them to safely exercise what they are learning. This kind of structured, experiential learning is immensely valuable to students, whether they are leaving the campus to spend time in the workplace or employers are helping schools replicate the work environment in classroom settings.
Fortunately, solving the challenges that plague employers right now — an insufficient pipeline of talent into quality jobs in the skilled trades and technical fields — translates into opportunities for many of today’s students who are poorly served by the current education system.
If we can reorient that system so that it includes better support for industry-aligned technical training, then we’d be doing society, the economy, and most importantly, our students a huge favor.