Suddenly, vocational training back in vogue
Enrollment soars in 'career technical ed,' as demand grows for workers with specific skills.
(Page 2 of 2)
One result of that quest for workplace relevance is a rise in partnerships among community/technical colleges, high schools, and employers.Skip to next paragraph
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A case in point is the pairing of RF MicroDevices in Greensboro, N.C., with local Guilford Technical Community College. RFMD has developed several programs to help train student operators for his "water fab" facilities, which turn out integrated computer circuits.
"There's no place else around here where someone can learn the skills necessary to perform efficiently in our facility," says Ralph Knupp of RFMD. "Someone who graduates with a bachelor of arts would not arrive bringing the specific experience we need. So vocational training is critical for us to maintain our manufacturing strength in Greensboro."
North Carolina, which has seen its textile and furniture industries contract dramatically in the face of foreign competition, has relied heavily on its community college system, founded in 1958, to redevelop and retrain displaced workers.
"We did a major study with industry and found that for two-thirds of all bio-tech jobs in this state, no four-year degree was necessary," says Martin Lancaster, president of the North Carolina Community College system.
In California, meanwhile, the renewed interest in tech ed follows a 25-year decline in such instruction. About three-quarters of high school technical programs were dismantled, and the number of such high school courses dwindled from 40,000 to 24,000 in that time.
But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) supports targeted vocational education, based on European models from his childhood. The governor is touring the state in support of a November ballot proposition that will provide $10 billion in bond money to overcrowded schools, including 170 community colleges.
"The renaissance of career technical training is absolutely confirmed in California," says Brice Harris, chancellor of Los Rios Community College District in Sacramento. Fall enrollment there is up 5,000 from last year, a 6 percent jump.
Companies clamoring for specific skills are driving much of the tech-ed rebirth, analysts say.
"Industry has been complaining about shortages of skilled labor they need, so they have been sharing that with college administrations, counselors, and technical advisers," says Trent Munsey, CEO of Skills USA California, a state and national organization that connects students, educators, industries, and businesses. "They have been screaming for trained people [coming] out of the school system as it is ... and enticing people back to the trades."
The disconnect between employers and American education remains a serious problem, say some observers.
"America still has way too many parents and students reflexively applying to four-year colleges on the old adage that in the long run, that is how to get to the top," says Peg Hendershot, director of Career Vision, a Chicago-based career consulting service.
More than 90 percent of US high school seniors say they plan to attend college, and about 70 percent of high school graduates actually do go to college within two years, according to the Education Trust.
"Many more have been going to college without really knowing why and finding out they don't acquire the skills they need to get a job," says Ms. Hendershot. "Now the conversation has started over how to create shorter, alternative pathways."