Within the last few decades we have seen the increasingly rapid demise of the teaching of the trades in high schools and community colleges. The “shiny ball” seems to be technology. Courses in the physical trades – also known as vocational education – seem to have been traded out for anything high tech. But is this really beneficial to our students and our economy?
We have several friends in the trades. They have established businesses in everything from cabinet making to auto repair, from construction to upholstery. Their common challenge is they can’t find good help anymore! Apparently educators think we don’t need auto shop and woodworking classes any longer. The trades today are dominated by aging Boomers. But where are their replacements?
Most students who don’t complete a 4-year college will wind up in the trades. But how are they prepared to go out into the workforce? We used to teach trades education. Now the high schools and 2-year colleges are abandoning this practical education for coding, programming, and software engineering, all based on the premise that the tech boom will continue forever.
No doubt we need these techies, but how many of them do we really need before they begin to reduce their own demand, flood the market, and reduce their own income? And what happens when the next tech bubble bursts? Do we face another huge unemployment crisis that affects real estate values and ultimately the whole economy?
Meanwhile, there’s a demand for the trades, whether you want to improve your home, or reupholster your couch. In the last recession, we saw a reduced demand for the trades because of the hiatus in construction. At the same time, we saw an increase in demand for coders. That sent a relatively short-sighted message to the schools to dump the trades in favor of tech. Now we’re faced with a serious shortage of qualified tradesmen, and all the while the specter of automated coding and programming is looming on the horizon.
Vocational training will also reduce the dropout rate by providing skills that are in demand now. But who decides what will be taught in high schools and 2-year colleges? Local governments. Don’t they have a responsibility to the community, the students and the economy to bring back vocational training? Sure, it’s not as glamorous as tech training, or academic courses, but what does the rest of the world know that we have forgotten?
According to Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy, writing back in 2012, “Japan, Singapore, the Netherlands, Denmark and other leading industrial countries lived in the midst of the same global economic forces we did, but they did not do what we did in response. They doubled down to improve both their academic and their vocational programs. They built education systems designed to support the middle class as well as an elite. They built vocational education programs that require high academic skills. And they designed programs that could deliver those skills. They did not sever the connections between employers and their high schools; they strengthened them. They made sure their high school vocational students had first-rate instructors and equipment. Their reward is a work force that is balanced between managers and workers, scientists and technicians.” He goes on to explain how democracy itself is dependent on a strong middle class and vocational education is essential to providing a balanced economy.
For a real eye-opener, read his entire article and send it to your local high school and community college board members. The demise of vocational education he warned about in 2012 is a reality in 2016. It’s time to bring back the trades!
Who We Are
Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey co-authored the New York Times bestselling business book, The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built America’s #1 Wine Brand. The book has been selected as recommended reading in the CEO Library for CEO Forum, the C-Suite Book Club, and numerous university classes on business and entrepreneurship. It chronicles their humble beginnings from the laundry room of a rented Sonoma County farmhouse to the board room of E&J Gallo, who ultimately acquired their brand and engaged them as brand consultants. Barefoot is now the world’s largest wine brand.
Beginning with virtually no money and no wine industry experience, they employed innovative ideas to overcome obstacles, create new markets and forge strategic alliances. They pioneered Worthy Cause Marketing and performance-based compensation. They built an internationally bestselling brand and received their industry’s “Hot Brand” award for several consecutive years.
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