If you know me, or at the very least, have read my past columns, you know I am a proponent of public education, having taught for four decades. I frequently mention my belief that trends and problems in education swing back and forth over the years.
When I started teaching, I was certified K-12 in industrial arts education. I was required to be certified in eight “shop” areas. Of those eight, only drafting/drawing still exists today in regular public high schools.
Along the way, I continued my education with a driver education degree as well as myriad vocational and administrative classes and certifications that included special education and automotive technology. Yet with all these subspecialties, I quickly realized that I was the last of a dying breed, so I secured my final degree, a master’s in computer technology, correctly guessing that computers would soon become an integral part of our day-to-day lives.
I mention this to point out that I certainly appreciate and value a college education. My degrees have served me well. But college isn’t for everyone. Over the course of many decades, schools across the country started to direct students toward a college education and away from the trades. Hands-on, vocational training programs suffered. It certainly makes for better press when a school can boast that 98 percent of students will pursue a college degree, and that many of them are headed to prestigious universities.
But why should schools be resistant to taking pride in providing skilled laborers to the workforce? Sadly, the trend for prestige took us in a different direction.
The world needs an essential workforce in all walks of life, from the trades to medical field technicians, cooks, cosmetologists, and even web designers; the list of skilled labor professions is endless. If you think about just getting through a medical procedure, you put your trust in skilled people who are often without four-year degrees. If you own a home and you need repairs, you know that it’s difficult to hire a qualified “handyman,” let alone a home remodeling contractor. They are few and far between, can be very expensive, and all of the best professionals are booked months in advance.
These occupations require a special type of training, often only available at private vocational schools. This type of education, to make students “work ready” upon graduation, is sorely needed in our high schools and junior colleges.
I have often found myself in the minority during my career, pushing for vocational training. It wasn’t a popular idea for a teacher to be directing students away from college. Students are often discouraged by their peers, parents and even teachers from choosing auto mechanics instead of a traditional classroom-learning environment. Yet those same teachers may eventually need their car fixed, and may balk at the cost of a skilled mechanic. Worse yet, they may have a hard time finding a qualified mechanic available to repair their vehicle.
Luckily, I have begun to see some swing back toward training students in career and technical education in vocational areas. I am happy to note that the Valley Stream Central High School District has brought back the automotive repair trade program, which should never have been abolished, again located at Central High School. New vocational classes in the nursing and medical assistant fields are also available in the district, along with the longstanding and highly successful cosmetology and commercial foods programs.
Parents and students should also be aware that Nassau Community College offers a range of “workforce development” courses in health care, computers and business. These are affordable options for many students, and well worth checking out as part of a comprehensive deep dive into career options for high schoolers getting ready to explore the job market.
Imagine going to work at a job you enjoy, with a very competitive salary and benefits, without having huge college debit looming over your head.
Mike Rowe, the TV host, narrator, and trade activist said it well: “I think a trillion dollars of student loans and a massive skills gap are precisely what happens to a society that actively promotes one form of education as the best course for the most people. I think the stigmas and stereotypes that keep so many people from pursuing a truly useful skill begin with the mistaken belief that a four-year degree is somehow superior to all other forms of learning.”
Ed Fare is the mayor of Valley Stream.