Tag Archives: vocational education

He’s More Than a Dirty Guy

Mike Rowe, the Dirty Jobs dude, testified before Congress about the lack of skilled labor we have in the US and the related problem of the marginalization of vocational education in our society:

I believe we need a national PR Campaign for Skilled Labor. A big one. Something that addresses the widening skills gap head on, and reconnects the country with the most important part of our workforce.

Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The skills gap is real, and it's getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They're retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them.

Alabama's not alone. A few months ago in Atlanta I ran into Tom Vilsack, our Secretary of Agriculture. Tom told me about a governor who was unable to move forward on the construction of a power plant. The reason was telling. It wasn't a lack of funds. It wasn't a lack of support. It was a lack of qualified welders.

In general, we're surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn't be. We've pretty much guaranteed it.

In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We've elevated the importance of "higher education" to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled "alternative." Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as "vocational consolation prizes," best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of "shovel ready" jobs for a society that doesn't encourage people to pick up a shovel.

I think he's absolutely right.  College isn't for everyone.  Desk jobs aren't for everyone.  Our society needs to get back to the point where we applaud and appropriately reward hard work, whether or not it takes place on a computer or in a ditch.

By the way, my favorite part of his testimony was at the beginning when he was talking about his grandfather, a jack of all trades, who inspired him to create Dirty Jobs:

I remember one Saturday morning when I was 12. I flushed the toilet in the same way I always had. The toilet however, responded in a way that was completely out of character. There was a rumbling sound, followed by a distant gurgle. Then, everything that had gone down reappeared in a rather violent and spectacular fashion.

Naturally, my grandfather was called in to investigate, and within the hour I was invited to join he and my dad in the front yard with picks and shovels.

By lunch, the lawn was littered with fragments of old pipe and mounds of dirt. There was welding and pipe-fitting, blisters and laughter, and maybe some questionable language. By sunset we were completely filthy. But a new pipe was installed, the dirt was back in the hole, and our toilet was back on its best behavior. It was one of my favorite days ever.

I loved this part because, quite frankly, I've held the role of Turd Man of Alcatraz for far too long and I'm in the midst of a long-term land war with my septic system.  Let's just say my appreciation and admiration of those who do the dirty jobs is quite high.

The Case for Vocational Education

I've known quite a few people who just weren't cut out for college.  Not that they weren't "good" enough, just that they had no interest and honestly it's hard to be good at anything that you really aren't interested in doing.  That's one reason I've always found the phrase "He only went to community college" to be offensive and frightening.  Offensive because it implies that university graduates are superior people, when in fact all it says is that someone had the wherewithal to get through four years of higher education.  (Let's be honest: the vast majority of the jackholes who ran our economy into the ground have college degrees. Can we say MBA?) Frightening because our society needs young people to understand that the ability to earn an honest day's wage as a carpenter, electrician, computer technician or car repairman is honorable, and when we belittle vocational education we send the opposite message.

This column in The Economist looks at the problem:

America has a unique disdain for vocational education. It has supported such training since 1917; money now comes from the Perkins Act, which is reauthorised every six years. However, many Americans hate the idea of schoolchildren setting out on career paths—such predetermination, they think, threatens the ethos of opportunity. As wages have risen for those with college degrees, scepticism of CTE has grown too. By 2005 only one-fifth of high-school students specialised in an industry, compared with one-third in 1982. The share of 17-year-olds aspiring to four-year college, meanwhile, reached 69% in 2003, double the level of 1981. But the fact remains that not every student will graduate from university. This may make politicians uncomfortable, but it is not catastrophic. The Council of Economic Advisers projects faster-growing demand for those with a two-year technical-college degree, or specific training, than for those with a full university degree…

In the meantime, a bold new programme is inching forward. The National Centre on Education and the Economy (NCEE), a think-tank, is developing a test that students may take in their second year of high school. On passing, they could proceed to a community college or stay in high school to apply to a four-year university. Those who fail would take extra courses to help them pass. A pilot programme, supported by the Gates Foundation, will begin in eight states next year. Some parents are already outraged by the imagined spectre of tracking. Marc Tucker, who leads the NCEE, argues that a path to a community college might keep students engaged. Such a system would provide students with more opportunity, not less.