ON THE RIGHT TRACK?

In the recent Folio Weekly feature, “The New Face of Homelessness” [Dennis Ho, Keith Marks, July 15], Sulzbacher Center’s CEO made a comment that tweaked my interest in a topic I’ve talked and written about many times in the last few years. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for the job Cindy Funkhouser and her organization do to help the homeless and displaced in Jacksonville. When asked by the interviewer for “an easy answer” or “magic wand” to eradicate homelessness, she spoke about “adding a vocational track back in all public schools.”

First, there’s never been a vocational track in all public schools, unless she is referring to shop and home economics classes, primarily in high schools. She mentions a common justification for her recommendation: “Not everyone has to go to college to make a good living.”

This is so easy to say but, in my view, ignores the reality of the present state of market economics and technology. I absolutely agree that not every student has to or will be able to obtain a four-year bachelor’s degree. The ridiculous cost of a four-year university degree compared to the economic value of some majors earned by graduates is becoming a major disgrace.

It’s all about teaching students a “trade” and, as Funkhouser says, getting society to “stop looking down on [vocational] trades.” My question to those who support this is simple. What “trades” are you talking about? The usual examples are auto mechanics, culinary arts, plumbing, construction (a universal all-encompassing term if ever there was one), cosmetology; maybe a few more. There are in fact many more skill sets that can lead one to make a reasonable living. Look at what learning a trade entails in today’s economy.

At the elementary into the middle-school level, the best foundation for any career choice is simple: reading, writing and arithmetic. Even in the currently popular STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) program, at the elementary level, the best basis for those fields is still the three R’s. If you can’t read well, can’t write coherently and have trouble with basic math concepts, careers are limited.

Let’s look at the skills in some of the specific vocational trades often mentioned. If you look around any automotive service center, you will see lots of computer consoles and other electronic equipment. Also displayed will be numerous certificates documenting various specific training that mechanics have received to enable them to work on today’s sophisticated automotive technology. I do not notice similar certificates for those workers doing oil changes and tire rotations, although even those basic tasks require entry of completion status on a computer terminal and, for my car, resetting the onboard computer which tracks when an oil change is needed.

I taught science for five years in one of two Duval County vocational magnet high schools. To be an effective curriculum, the automotive areas had to have, as much as possible, up-to-date testing, diagnosis and repair equipment. Students could achieve many of the national standardized certifications sought by local service organizations offering good starting pay. Not Jiffy Lube minimum wage, but significantly better. It was also true that those graduates who wanted career advancement needed academic skills to complete additional, more complex training. Managerial and leadership skills became important. Teachers had to be licensed, experienced professionals, not shade-tree mechanics.

Construction today is the realm of Computer Assisted Design, premanufactured modules and lower-skill labor performing assembly. Sure, the skill trades like electrical, HVAC and plumbing are still needed, but must have the right training for the increasingly complex and computer based systems they install.

The nationally recognized culinary program in the school where I taught had classes in sanitation, food chemistry, dietary considerations and menu preparation. Portion control and ingredient lists required math skills and the ability to write and read effectively.

Let’s train students to work in computers and information technology. Fine, but what skills are needed? And do we have the computer systems, software, qualified instructors and ability to stay current with the advance of technology that a successful program requires?

I was an IT director for several years. Some of the best software people who worked for me were English majors in college. They, like so many of their generation, knew how to use computers and were comfortable with them. I needed people who could breakdown sometimes-confusing user requirements into logical segments and develop an approach to automate them. How many times did I hear Language Arts teachers talk about finding the main idea and parsing paragraphs to fully understand the meaning?

Programmers would translate their work into whatever computer language and system was being used. If the requirements were clear and well-written, the work went well. Reading, writing and arithmetic were just as important as knowing how to program in Java, or C++.

Ms. Funkhouser talked about skills to make a “good living.” No one can be said to be making a good living in a career with no ability to advance or specialize. It is also true that many employers are no longer willing to offer basic training or apprenticeships, if you will. They will build on a solid base — but that base comes from elsewhere and includes being able to read competently.

Yes, vocational education should be offered in fields with a future and with the requisite level of advanced knowledge for today’s workplace. This creates another problem that’s often ignored when statements like “Not everyone needs to go to college” are made. Who makes that decision and when is it made? Even parents may not make the right decision, especially if they make it too early.

Vocational tracks are not one or two courses, although I sometimes think many still have that idea. I have also heard some who say that the same students targeted for vocational training don’t need anything but basic math and minimum-level language arts and reading. What if they find they like their academic courses and want more? Are they locked in by a decision made by others? Who made the decision? Who should?

There is a need for alternative paths for students unable or unwilling to pursue a traditional university degree. Those who counsel “teach them a trade” are out touch with just what that exhortation entails.

 

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