There is a widespread belief throughout the nation that vocational education is somehow second-class and that people who acquire such training are underachievers or are not smart enough for the rigors of four-year college. For many, vocational training conjures images of workshops leading to mind-numbing, dead-end, manual labor jobs paying low wages.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It is this misguided point of view that paints vocational education as the second-rate stepchild in the higher-education world. And not only has it done a great disservice to our nation and our young people, but it’s wrong.
In his book, “The Mind at Work,” author Mike Rose refers to the sweeping judgments about the intelligence of the common worker, revealing that in fact, the intellectual skills that physical labor requires of the average plumber, electrician, waitress and carpenter are far more rigorous than the widespread stereotypes would suggest.
Students on the vocational education track aren’t any less intelligent, or less capable, than their liberal arts peers; rather, they simply have a different set of interests, talents and skills. For these students, a traditional four-year college is not the right path. They do not thrive in lecture settings — memorizing and repeating data for exams.
But, because of the stigma — what Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) recently referred to as our country’s “bachelor’s addiction” — students often feel pressured to enroll in four-year colleges. Once there, too many end up dropping out and are left with the worst possible outcome: no degree, wasted time and substantial student debt.
The truth of the matter is that careers based on vocational training do lead to viable jobs that pay family-sustaining wages. In many fields, such as health care, graduates with vocational training can significantly increase their earnings over their lifetime compared with those only earning a high school diploma.
We also need to dispel the theory that critical thinking can only be taught or learned at four-year institutions. Vocational training not only provides the hands-on instruction required to hit the ground running, but also allows students in training to interface with managers in the private sector — educating them about the critical-thinking skills required in real-world scenarios.
As the economy continues evolving and technological changes create jobs in industries that require some training but less than a four-year college degree, we cannot afford to let this stigma against career education thwart investment in rebuilding our ability to train young people and returning workers in the vocational trades — or we risk losing out in the new global economy.
The need to invest in quality vocational programs is now greater than ever.
One way to ensure the career training we offer in this country is setting our students on a path for success and filling workforce gaps in the economy is by bringing together private industry leaders and career educators to align the jobs that are available in the marketplace with the training that is delivered in technical schools around the country.
In the areas where the most significant skills gaps are identified, we must support apprenticeships for career education students by providing incentives to private companies to promote student learning and create a customized group of well-trained workers.
Building these partnerships and strategic alliances will create a pipeline of skilled, U.S.-based workers for growing industries and lay the groundwork for conversations between career educators and employers to plan for future industry trends and prevent potential skills gaps.
As so many American success stories have demonstrated, there isn’t just one path to prosperity. That’s why it is important to stop pretending four-year institutions are a one-size-fits-all solution to finding rewarding careers. It’s also time to recognize that various forms of education will provide young men and women with the skills needed to find long-term, meaningful work.
As the president of the Zenith Education Group career school network, I count myself on the front line fighting the stigma against vocational education. By bringing a broad swath of educators, lawmakers, private-sector business leaders, career counselors and others to the table, we can continue to broaden opportunities, encourage lifelong learning for students and create well-paying, long-term U.S. jobs.