Addressing vo-tech interests of 21st century learners and employers


An earlier post related the tale of my unlikely appointment to the Minnesota State Board of Education in the late 1970’s. Writing about my experience on the Board agitated a concern that festers every time I hear or think about the state and future of vocational education.

One of my tasks as a member of the Board was to chair the State Board of Vocational Education which in those days was actually a separate board that set policy for the 30-some Area Vocational Technical Institutes. Liberal arts product that I am, I became an ardent and now unreconstructed advocate for a first-rate publicly funded vocational education system accessible to every Minneseotan.

When the merger of the AVTI’s and the community colleges was more than a gleam in the eye of the administrators I was assigned to study the pros and cons of joining the vocational and community college systems. Though the results of my labors had no impact on the pre-determined decision to merge, I still remember what I learned. And it troubles me that the issues that seemed so important then receive scant attention in today’s angst re. the future needs of industry for trained workers.

Needless to say there are for-profit trade schools at the ready to fill the vacuum. Certainly not all but too many eschew accreditation standards, spew forth content and credit willy-nilly, consider truth-in-advertising a nuisance, welcome all comers as long as they come with cash in hand or state/federal government support, and show scant mercy. My concerns focus on public institutions for which I have hope and in which the public has a say.

With that narrowing of the field, I presume to observe:

1) One size does not fit all: My first concern is that virtually all of the deliberations on vocational technical education focus on the needs of employers. These are hard times, I know. Jobs are preeminent for every decider and most voters, certainly for the unemployed and the under-employed. Still choice matters to a nineteen year old with a dream and a proclivity for a specific field – or for a mid-career worker who needs a change.

Alex Friedrich, writing for Minnesota Public Radio on ways to revitalize vocational education (May 2011), observes that “we’ve pushed far too many students into getting four-year degrees for which they are unprepared. Their lack of success put us among the world leaders in drop-out rates, and they go begging for jobs even while our industries have a hard time finding graduates with the skills they need.” Friedrich suggests that students need to have choices including but not limited to community colleges, apprenticeships, military or community service.

While students seek financial independence, some go to school to learn about things that have little value on the job market but may enrich the learner’s life and the lives of those around him or her. I know artists who are bakers – or bakers who are artists – IT folks who read Proust and Proust readers who write software.

2) Planning matters: The cast-in-concrete state plan for vocational and technical education is mandated by the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, as amended, directs how Perkins funds are used for secondary, postsecondary, and adult career and technical education. The frequently revised plan officially documents the path that public vocational education will take. I’ve filled out enough government forms to know that the questions frame the answers. Planners are clearly responding to the federal requirements which ultimately provide essential financial support.

Still, an open planning process is not just a federal requirement but a meaningful and essential tool to good planning. I well recall a time when I presumed to publicize a public hearing on the state plan for vocational; a high placed administrator challenged me by affirming that the plan had already been written and did not accommodate change – in this case the needs of vocal representatives of the disabilities community. All of today’s thinking focuses on engaging the business community in planning. Still, not only employers but prospective and current students, their families, career counselors and, perhaps most of all, the under-served, must to be heard.

3) Learning a skill is a noble pursuit in and of itself. I recall with a cringe the words of one decider involved in the merger of academic and vocational-technical institutions. When asked who the change in the governance of vocational education would affect, this haughty businessman responded “No one we know” – and no one challenged him!

Again quoting Friedrich who takes a holistic approach to vocational learning: “In business, government and education, vocational education needs to be presented as a standard, viable, respected option for students. Shop classes, for example, might need to return to high schools, and vocational technical education should be discussed in high school career counseling.”

4) Articulation among systems means more to the individual student than it does to the system at large. It is the learner, not the institution, who moves in and out of a mix of education delivery systems. Articulation is the process by which one institution matches its courses or requirements to course work completed at another institution. Students use course articulation to assure that the courses they complete will not have to be repeated as their institution to which they are transferring. Distinct from transfer of credit, articulation is a powerful tool for facilitate portability and flexibility for students trying to negotiate the post-secondary education labyrinth.

Though today the issue usually comes up as a community college to university issue, when the merger was imposed, articulation between vocational institutes and community and four-year colleges could have solved many problems, had the deciders shed their self interests.

5) Vocational learners and teachers need more than buildings, even more then technology – they need the tools of their chosen trade. This involves investment in equipment and a different style of collaboration between educational institutions and employers. Though on the job training by any other name, including apprenticeships, makes sense it does demand an investment of time on the part of all concerned.

My only association with vocational education is that of an individual with some background and a deep concern for the economy and, even more, for every Minnesotan who has the gumption to step to the plate and learn a trade that meets his or her own interests and addresses at the same time the good of the whole.