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It's a Good Time to Focus on Vocational Education

Updated: Apr 11

By: Dave Rojeck, Ph.D.

Catholic Educational Leadership/Policy Studies

Go to Walmart. Buy some Amazon. Chances are many of the products you buy from these sources are made in China. Compare trade numbers between the USA and China. In 2020, the USA trade deficit with China on products was 283.6 billion dollars. Deficits are not good.

The solution: Require all high school juniors and seniors go to school for a half-day and work the other half in the manufacturing sector. Students will earn money for college or make the decision to continue working. School extra-curricular activities and graduations will be held as usual after final testing and submission of a final evidentiary school/work report for every student. The result will drastically increase the volume of American-made products with the addition of millions to the American workforce. Reliance on China and other nations for goods will decrease. Students will learn the value of work while determining if they want to attend college or not. Finally, the centuries-old debate of traditional academic learning versus vocational education will thus be clarified and solved.

Boy too big for his desk
Are we sure this boy isn't ready for the world of work?

Why transform traditional schooling for upperclassmen in high school?

As in the days of the pioneers or even in groups like Amish communities today, traditional schooling ends in the early teen years so children can go off to work and help to build a self-sustaining community. I recently attended an athletic event in a public school district with numerous Amish families. When I asked someone how many Amish children were on the sports teams at the high school, I was told none; most finish their traditional schooling at the conclusion of middle school in order to go to work.

In contemporary high schools today there are more than a few upperclassmen (as there has always been) who would prefer not to attend school. They are often the cause of classroom disruptions. It's as if many juniors and seniors are held against their will and have decided to let everyone know about it. As for those who desire academic learning, traditional public schools now have early college for juniors and seniors. These students' classes are often held at nearby colleges. These two cohorts of students make traditional high school classes for upperclassmen almost obsolete. While one doesn't want to be there, the other prefers a greater academic challenge than what may be afforded at the high school. Throw in remote learning and students can perform academic work on a flexible schedule.

So, let students who have already completed more than 10 years of full-time education go to work. Early college attendees can go to class in the morning and go to their manufacturing job in the afternoon, while those not accepted or have not chosen to engage in early college can work full-time.

Yooung man doing rock experiment
With a couple years apprenticing, this young man can either elect to study the field in college or go to work

Benefits to the US Economy

There are over 21 million Americans between the age of 15-19 in the USA as given by the 2020 Census. Thus, there are roughly four million per year in this age cohort. If we just count 17-18 year-olds, that equates to 8 million Americans eligible to work in the manufacturing industry during their last two years of traditional high school. President Trump touted the return of 600,000 manufacturing jobs during his term. This proposal will add between 5-10 million jobs to the manufacturing sector each year. As seniors graduate, incoming juniors will replenish their jobs. Adding millions of jobs will increase the output of American-made products and reduce trade deficits with other nations. Prices on US-made products won't increase drastically because wages for 17-18 year-olds will be entry-level. The average American citizen will gladly pay a little more for products made in America as awareness grows of the dire circumstances that trade deficits and supply chain issues cause for the country.

The Clarification of Education

The aim of a classical liberal arts education is to teach students how to think for themselves, to be free thinkers. One aim of the progressive era of Education and leaders like John Dewey and others was to prepare students with skills for the world of work. Today, traditional public schools offer vocational classes such as woodshop, print shop, technology, auto mechanics, etc. Catholic schools, perhaps in part because of smaller budgets, do not offer such vocational offerings but hold onto more narrow curricula of the basic academic subjects. That said, there has been a centuries-old debate on the true aim of Education.

By offering vocational, work-preparedness training for specific industries, classical liberals argue that students are not being prepared as free thinkers but rather being trained to be simply another cog in the machine, as they were prior to compulsory education. Those in favor of work training in traditional schools say that hands-on, experiential training is important for the overall concept of learning and that by high school, students can already be tracked into college prep or vocational learning.

This proposal is not to choose one or the other philosophies of education, but to create a melding beneficial to both students and American industry. Academic learning will be emphasized in schools, while trades and manufacturing will receive special emphasis during the upperclassmen years.

Benefits to 17-18 Year-Olds

Let's face it. Lots of students don't want to sit in classrooms for the duration of their junior and senior years in traditional schools. They are there, presumably to learn, but if they are not in early college, honors, advanced placement, or remedial classes, they find themselves in the murky middle, not being sufficiently challenged in school, but having nowhere else to go. The solution is half-day school/half-day work. This is not a new concept in that significant numbers of students already ascribe to this model. The suggestion here is to require this model for all students. Schools will work with their liaisons in the manufacturing industry to match students to jobs according to their interests. They'll still make it back to school in time for extra-curricular activities.

By placing all students in manufacturing jobs before graduation, many more young people will come to value the meaning of Education after having gone out in the world to work for a couple of years. Students will have greater clarity about whether they want to attend college or stay in the world of work and increase their skill sets. Young people will develop responsibility, maturity, clarity, and life purpose. They will earn money previously sent to foreign countries for manufactured products.

There are eras in the past when it was normal for sixteen-year-old children to work, enter into marriage, and establish their own households. By requiring high school upperclassmen to work 20 hours a week, the US economy will strengthen as manufacturing jobs will be brought back home and the USA will no longer be beholden to foreign countries for essential products and resources.

Dr. Dave has worked in schools for over 30 years at home and abroad serving urban, suburban, and rural populations with affluent, middle class, and disadvantaged students in public, private, and religious contexts. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on affective outcomes of students. There is way more to Education than academics. Join his Facebook group Fresh Eyes on Teaching for more insightful and innovative ideas on Education.

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