Suddenly, vocational training back in vogue
Enrollment soars in 'career technical ed,' as demand grows for workers with specific skills.
Six years ago, as his 11th-grade classmates struggled with the college-application ritual, Toby Hughes tried to envision his future.Skip to next paragraph
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A Georgia honors student with a 1350 SAT score, he knew he wanted to go into computer science, so he went to local computer companies and asked what they wanted in an employee. "They told me I would be more marketable if I had practical technical training as opposed to theoretical academic training," says Mr. Hughes.
He began taking specialized computer-networking classes while still in high school, landed a $52,000 job after graduating, and now, at 24, makes well past that.
Similar scenarios are repeating so often that the world of career technical training – once known somewhat disparagingly as "vocational training" – is experiencing a renaissance in America. Enrollment in technical education soared by 57 percent – from 9.6 million students in 1999 to 15.1 million in 2004, the US Department of Education reported to Congress.
There's every indication that interest is continuing to rise, as families struggle ever harder to afford the traditional college education and as demand grows for skilled US workers in fields such as aviation mechanics, computer technology, electronics, global positioning, and trades ranging from culinary arts to construction.
"American career technical education is being redefined because the needs of the evolving US and world economies are changing," says Darrell Luzzo, incoming president of the National Career Development Association. "Educators at all levels are recognizing that the world's employers increasingly need skill sets that the conventional four-year college degree doesn't give."
The once-standard offerings of technical education – wood shop, metal shop, machining – don't cut it in today's economy either.
"We are redefining almost everything that has to do with the intersection of new technology and the global economy," says Mark Whitlock, CEO of Central Educational Center in Newnan, Ga., a charter school. "The economy is changing and therefore education has to continue to change."
Fields of study today are likely to include more forward-looking careers: crime forensics, composite-plastic fuselage design, robotics, nanotechnology, radiological diagnostics, 3-D animation, and the burgeoning field of "industrial maintenance technology" (keeping the high-tech systems in a modern industrial building up and running).
"When a light-sensor toilet doesn't function anymore, who ya gonna call? Not a regular plumber," says Bill Murphy, recruiter for the McMurry Regional Training Center in Casper, Wyo. "You need someone who knows how to program computers."
Employer demand for such technical skills is prompting some states – including North Carolina and Florida, perennial leaders in education reform and experimentation – to revive or reinvent their tech-ed programs. California, home to 1 in 9 US students, sank $100 million into new technical education programs in its 2006 budget. And in August, President Bush signed legislation renewing the Carl Perkins Vocational and Technical Training Act, boosting to $1.3 billion the amount states will get next fiscal year for career technical education in high schools and community colleges.
"High schools, community colleges, universities, parents, and employers are all beginning to realize that ... to be competitive, our educational system needs more than academic theory," says Jan Bray, executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education. "They are realizing there needs to be more relevance to the workplace, to what students are interested in and to what the changing economy needs."