Note: This was a standard speech as a member of the National Council on Vocational Education)
Thank you for inviting me here today to tell the story of the vocational-technical education system in this country and what it can mean to our nation’s future. I’m here representing the National Council on Vocational Education as a layman, as an owner of a small business, and not as a professional educator or education administrator. I’m here as a cheerleader for the American workforce!
John Gardner has written, “An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing, because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water” (Excellence, p.)
Everybody in this country benefits from vocational-technical education, but most people know next to nothing about it, what it does, or how it works. Some people including some government leaders, media personnel, and even some educators — seen to care little about this wonderful and powerful resource that this nation has. The National Council on Vocational Education calls voc-tech education, “America’s Hidden Asset,” because it’s as good as the gold in Fort Knox, and just about as far from public view!
Spread across this nation are 26,000 institutions that teach voc-tech education to more than 16 million students at any one time. They are learning skills that are critically important to the economic future of this country. These students are studying to become. the high-tech computer programmers and operators, equipment assemblers, communications specialists, paralegals, physical therapists, home health aides, machinery operators, sales people, nurses, high steel erectors, welders, dental hygienists, word processor operators, bookkeepers and hundreds of other kinds of workers in 700 different occupations who keep this country going and will lead us into the 21st century.
Some people may still view voc-tech education as something taught in a dingy print shop or metal shop or greasy auto mechanics shop muddy ag shop. That old stereotype — vocational-technical education as dull and boring and leading to a dull and boring and insignificant life — just does not hold water any more, if it ever did.
Voc-tech education today is as sparkling new and bright as the surface of a NASA rocket or stealth bomber, which as a matter of fact was probably fabricated, assembled, and prepared for liftoff by graduates of voc-tech education. Voc-tech offers a course of study that leads to exciting and financially profitable work. It opens wide the door of opportunity for millions of adults, young people, displaced workers, and handicapped to build rewarding and fulfilling lives for themselves and their families and their communities.
Daily and weekly newspaper ads tell the story of modern-day voc-tech education graduates at work:
*A wide variety of occupations.
*Good pay and benefits, including profit-sharing and bonuses.
*But also, high skill requirements, including command of traditional academic subjects such as grammar, math and science.
The National Council believes the time has come for policymakers, the media, educators and the public to take a strong second look at voc-tech education. A lot has happened since we may have last looked at this valuable national resource.
The time has come, too, for parents and students themselves to take a strong second look at the benefits of voc-tech education. The U.S. economy is headed down a track that will require millions of trained workers in the coining years.
Washington Post writer William Raspberry recently wrote in one of his columns (4/7/89) that parents become apologetic if their child is a “master craftsman” and not a college graduate. He wrote, “Most of us would rather imagine our children spending their workaday lives in discussions and conferences and luncheon meetings, working with their mouths — than in building fine houses, taming balking engines or turning an expanse of yard into a piece of landscape architecture.” Raspberry goes on to quote a T. Tucker as saying, “Some people work with their hands; some people work with their mouths. Everyone works with his head.” The Learning in America TV series concluded by noting that our schools should focus on “learning for learning, rather than, learning for earning.” I submit to you that for our economic survival it must be both!
Business and labor are way ahead because we know the value of voc-tech education and support it enthusiastically. As the want ads show, we employers are eager to attract skilled workers and we are willing to offer the security, the pay and the benefits to recruit and retain those workers.
The myth of voc-tech education being for the slow students has been proven false time and again. And yet, the myth is still being reported. Ina July 3, 1989 issue of U.S. News and World Report, it is stated: “The advanced reading group of today often becomes the college-bound track of tomorrow while the slow group is more likely to turn out vocational-education student or just dropouts.
However, the positive effects of voc-tech education in this society are broad and deep. This educational system is helping the nation to meet foreign competition through producing high-quality, technically skilled workers. It is helping to reduce the rate of illiteracy, which now stands at nearly 20% of all adults and constitutes a serious national problem. And, it is helping to raise the general educational level of the entire population.
Consider these facts about the nation’s voc-tech education system:
*It graduates more than 2 million skilled workers each year.
*It provides 23 million adults with more than 43 million classes a year.
*Of all recent high school seniors who graduated, it is estimated that 97% took at least one voc-tech course.
*And finally, students in the top half of the ability distribution earn half of all vocational credits earned.
Consider also that students in this voc-tech system increasingly go on to post-secondary education in order to acquire the high levels of skills needed in today’s economy:
*60% of all high school vocational graduates enter some form of post-secondary education.
*College-bound students account for almost half of all the voc-tech enrollments.
Consider also that the employment marketplace is attuned to the graduates of the vocational-technical education system:
*Most jobs require education beyond high school, but do not require a bachelor’s degree. (“Workforce 2000” report)
*18 of the 20 fastest growing occupations within the next 10 years will require voc-tech education beyond high school.
All of these considerations add up to a picture of voc-tech education that differs dramatically from the stereotype of workshop, auto mechanics and ag shop. The American voc-tech education system now in place can help solve many of the social and economic problems of the nation if it’s only given the attention and respect it deserves.
The United States faces stiff international economic competition. Foreign countries now manufacture major portions of industrial and consumer goods once manufactured in this county. In the case of some finished goods, such as televisions, the U.S. does not manufacture the product at all, but imports it from abroad. Foreign nations now challenge American business across a broad spectrum of economic activity – and in some cases the foreign competitors are winning.
The answers to this competition are not trade barriers. Free trader benefits both the United States and its foreign allies. Rather, the answer to the foreign competitive challenge lies in improving America’s capacity to meet foreign competition on its own terms. That is, in the efficient manufacture of high-quality goods and the inexpensive production of nutritious food and quality fiber. We Americans have the right stuff to be competitive in the international marketplace.
Compared with other countries, the U.S. workforce competes well with white-collar and technical and managerial counterparts in other nations. American schools turn out the highly skilled scientists, engineers, business managers, and financial experts who are vital to business success. In the production plant, however, American workers who are well prepared to compete with their foreign counterparts are in supply.
The lesson is clear: Government policymakers, educators and the American public must stop CONCENTRATING on preparing the technical and managerial elite. We must ENLARGE our vision to include the critical segment of the workforce who will handle the PRODUCTION and marketing phase of the economic cycle. It is on these men and women that responsibility falls to maintain efficiency and quality in producing the food, goods and services that can compete effectively in the international marketplace. And these folks will gain their skills in the nation’s voc-tech education system.
An important and often overlooked contribution of the voc-tech educational system is the training of so-called “at risk” populations to become economically self-sufficient. This training enables people who might otherwise be deprived of the opportunity to work in satisfying and dignified occupations to earn their own way.
Consider these facts:
*Voc-tech education serves 3 million secondary and post-secondary disadvantaged and handicapped students each year.
*82% of the students served through disadvantaged and handicapped programs enter employment or continue their education on completion of their program.
*A recent (1986) study showed that the dropout rate of voc-tech education students in high schools was significantly lower than that of students who were not in voc-tech education. (Puget Sound Business Journal-12/28/87-article)
Finally, fixing the mismatch between the labor pool and the future marketplace for employment requires measuring the needs of employers. What kinds of employees do American employers want? My experience. . . . .
In a recent report by the American Society, for Training and Development and the U.S. Department of Labor, the answer came through loud and clear: employers want workers who have mastered not only the basic academic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also much more. We want people who can learn on the job, master new skills, solve problems, work well with colleagues, and deal successfully with customers. This package of capabilities sounds like a course• description for a typical voc-tech program.
Specifically, the report, “Workplace Basics: The Skills Employers Want”, found that employers seek men and women with these attributes:
*Know how to learn
*Can read, write, and compute
*Listen well and speak effectively
*Can think creatively and solve problems
*Take pride in their work, have good self-esteem, are able to set and meet goals, and manage their career well.
*Have good interpersonal skills, can negotiate with others, and are team players.
*Understand the importance of organizational effectiveness.
Every one of these skills is either taught as a matter of course or implied in classroom work or group projects in good voc-tech programs.
Closer to home in central Washington, in a just released study (“Understanding Agriculture: New Directions for Education”) on agriculture education in high school conducted by the National Research Council and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it is stated, “The dominance of production agriculture in the curriculum must give way to a much broader agenda, including the utilization of agricultural commodities, agribusiness marketing and management in a global economy, public policy, environmental and resource management, nutrition, and health” (p. 6), and again, “The committee envisions that an agriculturally literate person’s understanding of the food and fiber system would include its history and its current economic, social and environmental significance to all Americans. This definition . . . encompasses some knowledge of food and fiber production, processing, and domestic and international marketing” (p. 9).
These skills are also taught in good voc-tech programs.
And, all of these skills are being taught to the academic upper-half of the student body.
“There is no longer a place in America’s workforce for the uneducated person, or, the educated person who has not learned how to work” (Edwin Kurth). For those of us who believe in a market place basically free of government restraints and control, for those of us who believe that the welfare state tends to dehumanize and destroy human self-worth and esteem, for those of us who believe it is the family’s responsibility to educate our children and create the value atmosphere for them, for those of us who believe that the process of attaining wealth and economic independency is as important as the wealth itself vocational—technical education deserves a special look, a commitment that must not waver it we and our children and our neighbors are to share in the American dream.