What Happened to Vocational Training in Schools – And Can It Come Back?

CC BY 2.0. Becky Stern

Re-introducing vocational training in high schools could benefit students in countless ways, from preparing them for skilled, lucrative careers to giving them practical skills that make them feel useful.

There was a time when every child in the United States was taught more than just academics, when woodworking, welding, and cooking were part of the school curriculum. That changed more than 60 years ago, when the United States overhauled its education system to introduce tracking – the separation of academic and non-academic streams of students based on their perceived potential for college.

As Nicholas Wyman describes in an excellent article for Forbes, titled “Why we desperately need to bring back vocational training in school,” parents were so outraged by this division of young people that an alternative was born – a focus on preparing every child for college.

While it may sound good, it’s a shortsighted and overly generalized goal to have for every young person, as they all come with varied skill sets, strengths, and interests. Some kids are cut out for college; others are not, and there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that. Wyman points out that the numbers for college success are not good:

“The latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that about 68% of high school students attend college. That means over 30% graduate with neither academic nor job skills. But even the 68% aren’t doing so well. Almost 40% of students who begin four-year college programs don’t complete them, which translates into a whole lot of wasted time, wasted money, and burdensome student loan debt. Of those who do finish college, one-third or more will end up in jobs they could have had without a four-year degree [and] 37% of currently employed college grads are doing work for which only a high school degree is required.”

Imagine if things were different – if technical, physical, and labor-based jobs were not made out to be somehow inferior to academic-based pursuits, nor viewed as a remedial track geared mostly toward minority and working-class students; if aviation maintenance, auto body technology, audio production, and welding were esteemed as highly as medicine, law, and engineering?

I can think of a few reasons why vocational training should be given a prominent place in North American schools and why it would give many students a much-needed advantage.

1) Trades are practical skills. Young people who can build, repair, and invent things have useful knowledge that is easily applied in daily life, at work and at home. Practical skills would give them a tremendous sense of personal satisfaction, particularly for a generation that’s grown up in inhabiting virtual reality.

2) Vocational training allows young people to work immediately after high school without racking up huge student loans. Far too often, the fixation on college degrees results in paralyzing debt that is no way to start one’s adult life.

3) Introducing vocational training could counter the fear culture that pervades schools. It would introduce much-needed perspective on what kids are capable of doing safely, i.e. using power tools, torches, knives, hot stoves, etc., rather than bubble-wrapping them at every turn.

4) Vocational training would help young people be more active. They’d be moving around a workshop instead of sitting at a desk, which would lead to better health and possibly fewer diagnoses of Attention Deficit Disorder and the like, less medication. It could result in reduced aggressive behavior because kids would feel like they’re on a meaningful track in life and have less reason to lash out. They would feel useful.

5) On a national scale, it means large swaths of the manufacturing sector could return to North America if trained workers are available. Wyman writes:

“The manufacturing sector is growing and modernizing, creating a wealth of challenging, well-paying, highly skilled jobs for those with the skills to do them; [but] the demise of vocational education at the high school level has bred a skills shortage in manufacturing today, and with it a wealth of career opportunities for both under-employed college grads and high school students looking for direct pathways to interesting, lucrative careers.”

6) It would expose young people to a wide range of careers that are not commonly known. These could fill the “skills mismatches” that exist currently in the U.S. and continue to affect the country’s ability to lower its unemployment rate. As Tamar Jacoby writes for The Atlantic,

“9.3 million Americans are unemployed, but 4.8 million jobs stand empty because employers can’t find people to fill them. With new technology transforming work across a range of sectors, more and more businesses are struggling to find workers with the skills to man new machines and manage new processes.”

7) Vocational training would give young people a clearly defined direction in life, which is something that everyone craves. A lack of direction is a common complaint among young people these days, and there are times when having a million options open is more overwhelming than liberating. Vocational training is the gift of preparation for life, of practical tools that enable young people to get off on the right foot.