Not Your Father’s Vocational Education

Published April 2, 2013

Joe Beach, a young Michigan dad and avid hunter, has no regrets about taking automotive technology courses while attending Petoskey High School. After high school, Beach received a full scholarship to Northwestern Michigan College, a community college. He graduated with eight certifications in automotive work.

“I have dyslexia, so the hands-on learning suited me,” Beach said. “It was better than a [traditional liberal arts] college, which is so broad, and you often end up taking a bunch of classes you don’t need. “

In 2011-2012, 7.3 million secondary students enrolled in a vocational class, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That’s about half of current high school students. Lawmakers in several states, including Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, and Texas, have recently promoted vocational high school options because of economic demand and diversity in student interests.

“There’s been a positive resurgence in the vocational education tracks,” said Daniela Fairchild, a policy analyst with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank. “They’re rebranding, and schools/districts/providers are really thinking about ways to recast CTE so that it provides solid pathways to jobs (and the middle class) without skimping on academics or forcing students into dead-end tracks.”

Vocational Ed 2.0
These days, vocational education can be more lucrative than the typical rambling liberal arts degree.

“Students with community college degrees are now out-earning those with bachelor’s degrees (right out of college). That’s depressing for those of us who shelled out $150,000 for a college education instead of the average $6,000 that it costs to earn an associate’s,” Fairchild said.

Despite apparent popularity and financial benefits, apprenticeship-style learning faces some stigmas.

“Conventional wisdom says that vocational track programs have traditionally been a dumping ground for those students who can’t ‘cut it’ in academic settings, or those with varied behavioral issues,” Fairchild said.

Workforce Shortages
Due to a workforce increasingly demanding highly-skilled technical workers, vocational training—or Career and Technical Education (CTE), as it is also known—has come a long way from ‘cosmetology and shop.’

“Today it takes an above-average person to diagnose a car’s problem. People are fixing cars with a computer instead of a wrench,” observes Beach.

Some lawmakers are interested in revitalizing vocational education because of its ties to economic needs. Florida lawmakers are considering expanding the state’s offerings to include a career planning course for middle school students that emphasizes entrepreneurship and technology.

“Florida’s taxpayer funded education system should teach relevant skills that lead to real jobs,” said Florida Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) in a statement. “The great irony of our state’s economy is that while unemployment still remains too high, there are thousands and thousands of high-paying, high-demand jobs open and available for qualified workers.”

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed a bill that adds specialties students choose to high school diplomas: college, career, and college and career). The bill seeks to “develop strategies” to increase the number of students enrolling in career and technical programs important to the state’s high-need employment areas, like Hickory’s furniture hub, which faces a shortage of skilled upholsterers and sewers.

The Workforce-Ready Bandwagon
In January, President Obama praised a New York City hybrid where students remain in their high schools an extra two years and graduate with a two-year associate’s degree in computers or engineering. It’s called P-Tech in Brooklyn or, more broadly, the 9-14 model.

Students who enter 9-14 tech programs share “a common motivation to develop the skills and training that will earn a credential that local employers value,” said Steven Baker, a spokesman for Jobs for the Future spokesman. “The kinds of employment the graduates find will vary greatly by region. Some of the leading fields include healthcare, technology, and manufacturing.”

The graduation rate for high school vocational programs is 90 percent, while the nation’s average high school graduation rate is 75 percent, reports the Association for Career and Technical Education.

Beach, who also holds a commercial driver’s license, makes a comfortable living as a warehouse coordinator and driver for a gourmet chocolate company.

“I am able to buy toys for myself and baby food for my daughter,” he said, grinning.

Learn more: 
Pathways to Prosperity,” Harvard University, 2011:



Image by Jeff Keyzer.