MINISTER, Ohio – One of the selling points for the Common Core experiment is that schools need the nationalized learning standards in order to equip students for jobs in the 21st century economy.
But a growing number of business leaders and economic analysts say schools should be doing more to prepare students for, well, 20th century careers as electricians, carpenters, machinists, tool and die makers, mechanics, welders, plumbers and the like.
These professions are collectively known as the skilled trades, and they’re some of the most in-demand and highest-paying jobs available. Economic analysts say that’s because they’re the hardest positions to fill due to a shortage of trained workers. Analysts predict the shortage will become more severe as the current workforce ages and more young people – brought up in the “college for all” environment – choose the ivory towers over blue collar careers.
To help reverse this trend, business leaders in two western Ohio counties are taking it upon themselves to attract new employees to the professions.
Their group – Auglaize & Mercer County Business Education Alliance – is raising money to hire an outreach coordinator who will visit local high schools to drum up interest for the skilled trades among students who are searching for a good-paying, bright-future career.
The effort is being led by electrical contractor Jack Buschur, who tells EAGnews he’s been struggling to find young people who are interested in becoming an electrician – a process that involves on-the-job-training along with online classes. Buschur’s difficulty in finding interested high school graduates is especially perplexing, given that he pays all the costs associated with an employee’s off-duty training.
Other area business owners are having the same difficulties, but Buschur doesn’t blame the schools for not preparing students for the jobs. Instead, he blames himself and other industry leaders for not telling students about the great career opportunities that exist right in their backyard.
“We’ve been sitting back waiting for it to happen,” Buschur says.
Buschur says his group will soon have enough money to make a three-year commitment to an outreach coordinator who will educate students (and their parents) about what skills are most in-demand and what they can expect in terms of earnings and promotions.
“We have lots of opportunities,” Buschur says. “We’d like to keep our young people in the area and see them make a very good living.”
The road to a middle class life runs through shop class?
While Buschur doesn’t blame the schools for the dearth of interest in the skilled trades, he does think schools would be doing their students a service if they re-introduced the industrial arts – woods and metal classes, for example – into their curriculum.
The significance of these classes was explained in a 2012 Forbes.com article: “Without early exposure to shop class many kids are going to lose out on the opportunity to discover whether or not they like making things, and the inclination to pursue a career as a drafter, carpenter, welder or auto mechanic.”
It turns out shop class isn’t just an endangered species in Buschur’s local school districts. The skills training class has largely been phased out “in Florida, Wisconsin, Texas and many other states,” according to Forbes.com.
The programs are getting left behind as education and political leaders increasingly tailor the high school experience as preparation for college.
Genevieve Stevens, dean of instruction at Houston Community College, explains:
“For two or three generations, the focus has been to go to college, get a degree and in doing so you will ensure a brighter future with more access to employment. We started focusing on academic instruction, but left behind the notion of work-force education. However, in a two-year institution that costs less, the average work-force student can come out of that program with skills to gain immediate employment.”
It’s too early to know if we’re witnessing a revival of skilled trades education in America’s public schools. If we are, it’s probably due to the ever-increasing costs of attending college – and the growing uncertainty among parents and students about whether the expense of getting a college degree is really worth it in the long run.
“Too many young people have four-year liberal-arts degrees, are thousands in debt and find themselves serving coffee at Starbucks or working part-time at the mall,” writes Josh Mandel, treasurer for the state of Ohio, in a recent op-ed. “Many of them would have been better off with a two-year skilled-trade or technical education that provides the skills to secure a well-paying job.”
It’s ironic that in the midst of a contentious debate about Common Core – a set of nationalized, “21st century” learning standards – many students may be discovering the skilled trades offer some of the best prospects for a prosperous career.
This could be our nation’s “Back to the Future” moment.