IS VOCATIONAL EDUCATION effective as it is funded and conducted in this country? This promises to be one of the major education issues faced in 1981 by the next Congress, which must reauthorize (i.e., extend or amend) the national vocational education act if federal funding is to continue.
During fiscal 1981 the federal government will spend $776.8 million on state grants earmarked for skills-training in secondary and post-secondary schools. Do these programs help young people find jobs? Do they meet the demonstrated needs of American business and industry?
These are the questions which have been and will continue to be addressed in congressional hearings over the next 12 months. Already, during testimony in September before the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary and Vocational Educatrion, witnesses have given widely diverging views on the effectivness of vocational education programs. More hearings are scheduled for next month.
For its Winter Education Review , Book World asked two men familiar with the controversary to present their differing points of view. Here are their comments:
SHOULD VOCATIONAL EDUCATION programs be expanded? Can they provide the skills which many observers feel unemployed youth lack? Or rather, was Franklin D. Roosevelt right when he complained that, "Much of the apparent demand for the immediate extension of vocational education . . . appears to have been stimulated by an active lobby of vocational teachers . . . who are interested in enrollments paid in part by Federal funds." Subsequent critics have echoed Roosevelt's complaint and pointed to the considerable success of vocational education in capturing resources and the scant evidence that students benefit.
This dispute is particularly urgent because of today's exceptionally high youth unemployment rates, particularly among minorities. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that in September the seasonally adjusted rate of unemployment for youths, aged 16-19, was 17.5 percent nationwide. For blacks of the same age group the figure was 38.2 percent. If high unemployment is due to poor job skills, and if vocational education could successfully teach those skills, then it would clearly be desirable to devote more resources to vocational education.
It is doubtful, however, that inadequate skills are an important explanation for the difficulties youth face in the labor market. First consider the situation of white youth. Current umemployment rates for whites aged 16-19 (the BLS unemployment figure for September stood at 14.9 percent) are not out of line with historical experience given our current position in the business cycle. If anything, the position of white youth has improved slightly. This implies that the high unemployment for the group as a whole, when compared with other age groups, results from the longstanding characteristics of the youth labor market, not from any recent developments such as declining vocational skill levels. Thses characteristics are twofold. sFirst, most young people are not very interested in "career" jobs immediately after leaving high school. Instead they are most interested in peer group activities, sex and adventure. Work is simply a means of making money to finance those activities. Hence they move in and out of the labor force, often quitting jobs. Second, the young are effectively barred from gaining employment in firms which pay well and provide career ladders. Because such firms make a considerable investment in training workers, they are reluctant to hire an unstable group. Instead, youth finds employment in firms which demand few skills, provide little training and neither encourge nor reward stable behavior. Only as young people mature and change their behavior, do they succeed in finding jobs with more desirable firms.
Based on the pattern described above,entrance into the adult labor market takes considerable time and occurs in two stages. Further there is the implication that vocational education is unlikely to succeed in making students more employable. Most jobs available to recent school leavers do not require substantial skills. And in fact, having skills does not measurably help these young people find jobs. As these youths mature and begin to acquire more desirable jobs, the impact of any vocational education they may have had in high school has diminished because they have been out of school for some time. Also most good employers prefer to provide their own training. Firms are better at on-the-job training than schools can ever hope to be and even on the most standardized equipment there are enough specific idiosyncratic technizues that firms must provide considerable controls, has found that students who attend high school vocational programs do no better than those who do not.
The situation of minority youth is different. Some of their unemployment is due to the conditions outlined above. However, other factors are at work such as: in many cases less adequate acedmemic preparation than white youth; growing labor market competition from groups such as adult women and illegal aliens, and racial discrimination. Vocational education addresses only preparation, and for the reasons discussed above, the kind of preparation it offers is not likely to be effective.
It would therefore seem that vocational education with a heavy emphasis on skill training will not substantially help young people and, indeed, the research literature supports the view. However, we have in place a substantial vocational education establishment, in terms of equipment and buildings and also a large staff who wants to do their best for their students. bIt is both unlikely, and undesirable, that we simply write off these resources. How can they best be used?
For those who do not continue to college the essential function of schools is to provide good basic skills in reading and math. Yet there is considerable evidence that many schools are not succeding in these areas, particularly in the inner cities. Nothing could be more important then finding ways to reverse this trend. If the traditional curriculum is not working well, then a different approach outside the regular classroom might succeed. Vocational education could be a vehicle for doing a better job of achieving the central purpose of schools. The emphasis would shift from skills training as a goal in its own right to skill training as a mechanism for teaching the three R's.
Also it is obviously not always the case that skill training fails. Some programs, for example community college and proprietary school computer programming courses, do rather well. However, these programs tend to be aimed at youth well beyond high school graduation and are developed in close cooperation with the appropriate industry. Also, proprietary schools and many community collleges respond quickly to skill shortages by establishing or expanding programs and shutting down those programs when demand diminishes. In contrast, vocational programs are considerably more sluggish. It might be worth developing mechanisms which permit vocational programs, in selected fields, to compete with proprietary schools for post high school students, with the provision that scholarships are available for lower income individuals and with safequards to assure that poor programs or programs with few applicants do not become institutionalized.
What we know about how labor markets work suggests that high school vocational education does not work well, and available evidence supports this view. Resources devoted to vocational education should be limited. At the same time we should find ways to employ better the resources, both physical and human, which are already in place.