The current economy has focused the debate over the United States’ competitiveness in the global job market. The loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States, in favor of places such as China, Taiwan and Korea has been pronounced and has made it difficult for many blue collar workers to find jobs in modern America. Much of the discussion regarding competitiveness centers around education, and rightfully so. However, the discussion often misses the mark because our paradigm for understanding education is completely wrong.
Looking back to education prior to World War II–or more precisely, prior to the G.I. Bill–high schools had the responsibility to give students the skills required to make a living while universities had the responsibility to make students well rounded. Most jobs didn’t need a college degree and most people didn’t attend college. Higher education was required for professionals, doctors, lawyers, engineers and business executives, but not for most people. However, two things changed during World War II: First, higher education became obtainable by millions of people who wouldn’t otherwise been able to afford to go to college because of the G.I. Bill; Second, more professionals, especially engineers, were needed in the workforce due to the consumerization of many of the technologies developed during the war and in subsequent years during the Cold War and Space Race.
As more people started attending college, it became the norm for employers to expect job applicants to have college degrees. This even applied to jobs where college degrees weren’t needed previously and where a college education doesn’t improve an employees ability to do the work. Because of this, it has become routine to expect that all high school aged children will go on to college in order to get gainful employment after school. In response, high schools have increasingly focused on a curriculum for college prep instead of vocational training.
All of this is not to say that a college education doesn’t have value, because it most certainly has an intrinsic value to the student. College teaches students critical thinking skills and it broadens the student’s worldview. While many students bemoan their general education requirements, they are some of the most important classes a university has to offer because it exposes the student to topics and ideas they might not have come across otherwise. However, universities are not vocational schools, they are not designed to prepare a student for success in the workforce. The simple fact is that the economy does not require an entire population to be college educated.
Right now, there are many open jobs across the United States that require skilled laborers, and yet there are not enough people learning these skills to fill the available jobs. This sad fact has been
One solution to the ongoing labor supply deficit in skilled trades is to teach those skills at the high school level, as they use to be taught. Of course, the skill set that’s required has changed, but the curriculum that high schools offer can change too. The existence of for-profit trade schools such as
Within living memory, students could graduate high school and expect to make a decent living pursuing a skill they learned in school. Today, that is no longer the case. The United States no longer has a routine path to skilled labor. High schools need to return to providing classes in the necessary skills so students have the option of attending college or not, and still be able to make a decent living no matter which path they choose. Doing so will help America’s students, the job market, and its competitiveness on the world stage.