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More States Are Stepping Up to Address the Need for Vocational Education

The idea that attending and graduating from a four-year university is the sole path to career success in the United States is one that is constantly pushed on students. And while higher numbers of people are earning a bachelor's degree now than ever before (around 33 percent), it is not the only path to success.

“Vocational education” is a broad term, covering a number of occupational fields, ranging from automotive to healthcare to agriculture, that do not necessarily require a baccalaureate degree. While vocational education has long been offered by many high schools and community colleges, it’s seen a decline in recent years.

There’s currently a huge need for technical skills jobs in the American workforce, and a number of states are answering the call to boost vocational education.

Just last week, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine (D) and West Virginia Senator Shelley Capito (R) introduced legislation that would launch a program partnering middle schools with local businesses, colleges, and other postsecondary institutions to create technical career exploration programs. The Middle School Technical Education Program Act would provide apprenticeship opportunities and career guidance to help groom students to fill the growing need for technical jobs.

"Whenever I travel through Virginia I hear the same thing from business owners, manufacturers, and plant managers: there are good paying jobs out there, we need to train our students with skills to fill them,” Kaine said in a press release.

Noel Ginsburg, the CEO of Intertech Plastics, said that the biggest challenge for his company is finding skilled workers to fill the positions needed to help his business grow. To help find these workers the Denver-based plastics manufacturer has partnered with the state to launch an apprenticeship program that connects industries with school districts.

Known as CareerWise, the program has support from Colorado’s governor John Hickenlooper and will provide paid on-the-job training for interested high school students, allowing them to earn 40 to 50 college credit hours at the same time. (Today, less than 1 percent of U.S. workers start their careers through apprenticeships, getting paid while they learn their trade.)

While experts believe that the fear of losing manufacturing jobs to overseas competition or automation has led students to turn away from pursuing vocational careers, Hickenlooper and Ginsburg are doing their best to shatter that myth.

“We’d like to have 230 career paths that will, in 10 years, serve 20,000 young people in a whole host of careers, from banking and finance to advanced manufacturing,” Ginsburg told PBS.

California is leading its own charge to bring students back into vocational education, investing over $200 million in various CTE (career technical education) programs. The state’s vocational education programs have seen a drop since the year 2000, falling from 31 percent of community college students taking vocational courses to 28 percent.

The plan of offering students more than one path to success and presenting them with apprenticeships has proven incredibly successful for countries like Switzerland. “In Switzerland, two-thirds of young people go into apprenticeship,” said Suzi Levin, a former U.S. ambassador to the country, who is working with CareerWise. “Their youth unemployment is just 3.2 percent.”

With well-paying jobs in fields such as healthcare and computer programming expected to continue to grow, our students deserve more than one choice to achieve career success.


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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