27 February 2005

Where the Jobs Are

Most of the governors from around the U.S. and its various territories have been meeting this week to discuss deficiencies in the services high schools are providing to students.

The fact that many high school graduates are unprepared for the world of work and/or college is not new. Neither is the reality that all too many students fail to finish high school. Perhaps government expectations for changing those statistics are new, but I'm not going to hold my breath to see if these governors are willing to put their budgets where their mouths are. I don't expect them to "walk the walk" any more than the Feds have regarding NCLB.

What I object to most is the idea put forth at the governors' summit that all students should be equally prepared for college.

It is only recently that being a high school dropout didn't carry the stigma that it does today. According to one source, "The high school dropout rate in 1900 was 90%. In the 1930s only about one-third of the youth population completed high school. By 1950 the number who graduated had increased to 59%. In the 1970s the dropout rate continued to decrease, but it was still nearly 28% nationwide." Today, rates are even lower. How is it that students in the past (our parents and grandparents) ever managed to do so well without a rigorous course of study and diplomas in their hands? And since they turned out all right, why are we so hellbent on changing things for our children?

The answer really doesn't have anything to do with college. It has to do with where the jobs are.

Richard Lynch writes that "In the U.S. today, less than 20 percent of the workforce is in jobs classified as unskilled. This is almost an exact reversal of the nature of the American workforce just 40 years ago. In 1959, 60 percent of the workforce was unskilled, with 20 percent classified as professional and 20 percent as skilled. Today 60 percent of the workforce is in skilled occupations and 20 percent in professions. The assembly line, single-skill jobs of the factory or construction site and the office clerk typist or bookkeeper are largely defunct. Rather, there is a tremendous demand for educated people with general employability and specialized technical skills in areas related to computer science and computer science technology, high-tech manufacturing, software development, biotechnology, biomedical applications, sales and services, data base management, and health care. Nearly all of the rapidly growing jobs and occupations require postsecondary or extensive continuing education."

What I really want you to think about is that in both 1959 and today, only 20 percent of the work force was composed of "professional" (i.e. college degree required) jobs. If that sort area of the job market hasn't increased in nearly 50 years---why should we assume that more kids need college? Doesn't it appear that more kids need technical training?

Mind you, the source quoted above mentions the need for "educated people," which is where this whole idea of standards comes into play. If we can get all kids to be proficient at reading, communicating, and thinking, then they'll be ready for life after high school. For most of them, this means attending a technical school for special training---not college. This comes at the same time that nearly 1.3 billion dollars earmarked for vocational ed is to be eliminated under Bush's most recent budget proposal.

The answer to why students don't finish high school is not a simple one. Some have such significant problems in their home lives that they can only focus on surviving day to day. For others, high school just doesn't "fit" them. And now we're asking that high schools become even more "one size fits all" in terms of student achievement. Will the reduction or elimination of vo-tech programs in high schools mean that more kids will excel in academic classes and head off to college? Based on my own experiences, I find that such an outcome would be unlikely.

The school I work in does offer the traditional college track---and most of the kids I see are part of that. But the school also offers Windows NT certification, Cisco, and advanced auto maintenance programs with their own standards for the job market. I wish more kids could take these classes...and now I'm concerned that fewer will be able to do so at a time when our society will have more jobs ready and waiting for them.

For a long time, having a college degree was the ideal. I've had many students who were the first in their families to attend college (or even finish high school). I was proud of all of them. But I also think that parents and the community at large should equally shout out the merits of those kids who leave high school with professional certifications in hand. There are an awful lot of college educated baristas at Starbucks. Perhaps some of them would have benefitted from some good career counseling about where the jobs were going to be. And at least they could have taken advantage of their high school's vo-tech program while it still had one.

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