Technical degrees, certificates, apprenticeships, and other postsecondary offerings that can be earned in two years (or less) often carry a negative stigma, as if the careers they prepare students for are somehow “less than” those afforded through a four-year degree. The stigma has plagued the growth and development of these programs when, in reality, they can be a sure ticket to a stable, middle class life.
One in five jobs in the United States is a “middle job,” a position that requires some postsecondary credentials, but not a bachelor’s degree. These jobs include office positions and healthcare occupations, two sectors projected to see growth in the next decade. Yet, a report released this month highlights a disconnect between the skills needed for these positions and the applicants who seek them: Almost 40 percent of employers say they can’t fill jobs because applicants don’t have the necessary skillsets. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Despite the myriad of potential career paths, we prepare many of our nation’s high-schoolers the same way: through a college-preparatory curriculum. But college—in the four-year-degree sense—is not for everyone and so, neither should standard high school preparation.
In Switzerland, about two-thirds of teenagers opt for their country’s Vocational Education and Training (VET) program, which combines part-time classroom instruction with training at a partnering business, beginning with students age 15. These educational programs appeal to students who prefer hands-on learning, want to enter the workforce more quickly, or simply aren’t attracted to a university atmosphere. Perhaps as a result, the country’s unemployment rate among young people is less than 3 percent. (In the United States, it’s 12 percent.) Britain and India, so far, have plans to pilot similar initiatives in their own countries, and ES Senior Fellow Joni Finney highlighted Ireland’s efforts earlier this week. So why not the United States?
Because it will require a rethink in how a high school education is delivered and received—and perhaps more difficult, it will demand a greater acceptance of educational paths outside of a four-year degree. Traditionally, technical education—where it still exists—has been a “catch-all” for low-achievers and any student not destined for college.
This needs to change.
The Common Core State Standards and the PARCC assessments provide the perfect opportunity to redefine career preparation by acknowledging the different demands of a technical career but also instilling the same rigor found in college preparation. With a demanding set of standards, we can eliminate “catch-all” scenarios, erase negative stereotypes, and fill a growing need for skilled workers in “middle jobs.” Unfortunately, though, PARCC sees these two pathways as one-in-the-same:
It doesn’t serve our students to believe that every high school graduate is destined for a four-year college; it’s also a bit antiquated to allow the negative stereotypes surrounding workforce development to linger into the 21st century. The road after high school diverges into several paths; it’s time educators accepted that and prepared students accordingly.
Photo Credit: Reuters