Is Vocational Education the Key to More Employment in America?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

In much of the western world, higher education and advanced degrees are considered an important measure of success. The United States in particular has come a long way toward becoming a nation of degree-holders; in 2013, two in five Americans held a college degree, and a recent report predicts that America is on its way to (once again) become one of the most educated nations on the planet.

And yet, in Finland, a country almost universally praised for its stellar education system, many students decide not to attend university, notes the Washington Post. In Finland, “45% of students choose a technical track, not an academic track, after completing their basic education.” Finland isn’t alone, either. According to a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which explores the state of vocational education across the globe, vocational education plays a much more prominent role in some countries, where “one quarter of the cohort pursues professional programmes.”

The report notes that, despite the western, and more specifically American, focus on higher education, “Post-secondary vocational education and training plays a much larger role in skill systems than is commonly realised, with, in some countries, up to one-quarter of the adult workforce having this type of qualification. Although inadequately understood, this world is of key importance to the skills systems of OECD countries.”

Mark Phillips, a professor of secondary education at San Francisco State University and a critic of the idea that everyone should go to college, notes that in the U.S., we place particularly high value on the professions. Careers in law, medicine, and finance, as well almost all white collar jobs, are still considered more prestigious and more worthwhile than blue-collar work. Frankly, Phillips says, that perspective is out-dated.

Research suggests that despite the status and prestige associated with white collar jobs, many blue-collar employees and business owners are effectively laughing all the way to the bank at their white collar counterparts stuck in the daily office grind. A college degree, more experts are saying, doesn’t always guarantee success. Indeed, rather than helping graduates land their dream job, a college education often saddles young people with debt they otherwise may not have had; money that could have instead gone toward a down payment on a house, or starting a business. Why then, is there such a focus on higher education here in the U.S.? Is college really for everyone?

Phillips argues that “the bias against vocational education is dysfunctional.” The OECD report seems to concur; the report notes that most nations need to work to embrace vocational education, given the current demand for employees to fill the void in the lower and mid-level technical professions.

The report notes, for instance, that “in the United States, it is estimated that one-third of all [job] vacancies by 2018 will call for some post-secondary qualification but not necessarily the completion of a four-year degree.” Further, in the European Union, it is forecasted that nearly two-thirds of overall employment growth will be for “technicians and associate professionals.”

Mark Edwards, executive director of Opportunity Nation, a nonprofit group with a mission to ensure that “all Americans — regardless of where they were born — have the opportunity to thrive,” and which advocates for better vocational programs, agrees. “We’ve done a disservice in this country by suggesting that there’s only one path to success, which is to get a bachelor’s degree,” he told U.S. News and World Report. “We need to expand how we think about success. It’s just a smarter, more nuanced way of thinking about workforce development.”

The U.S. isn’t alone in its struggle to embrace vocational education. The OECD report notes that “nearly all countries face challenges in ensuring that vocational education and training systems respond effectively to the needs of the labour market.” The challenges are myriad, too. Everything from lack of standardization, to terminology, to mediocre data keeping regarding the professional examinations taken by tradesmen are holding back the development and modernization of technical programs.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Among those who champion the idea that everyone should attend college is the Lumina Foundation, which aims to “increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality college degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60% by 2025.” The foundation does note, however, that counting more of the stand-alone certificates often acquired by those pursuing trades and technical fields is part of a larger plan to increase America’s standing in comparison to the rest of the globe.

The Lumina Foundation notes that in comparison to the four most educated nations on the planet (Korea, Japan, Canada and Russia), which report that more than 50% of their young people have a degree past high school, the United States is lagging somewhat behind; young people in the United States aren’t any more educated than older Americans. In both groups, the foundation reports, about 40% have at least an associate degree.

Even the staunchest supporters of higher education are beginning to alter their position. President Obama, for instance, who is famous for championing higher education, as recently as 2012 called for increased funding for vocational and technical education programs.

Another argument for better vocational education focuses on the students themselves, and contends that the current push for higher education ignores a large segment of students for whom college might not ever be a reality, for one reason or another. “A student with average academic skills but exceptional ‘small motor skills and special abilities’ is more likely to both earn more and be happier as, say, an electrician than as a mediocre middle manager,” notes Charles Murray, in an interview with Forbes Magazine. Further, some speculate that as many as 25% of college grads would probably be better off not pursuing a degree, given the salaries they’re likely to earn after graduation.

Researchers also note that higher education is changing as a result of the push to include more students. “In the ’60s, 15% of college grades were A’s,” notes Forbes. “Today, that percentage has nearly tripled: 43% of all grades today are A’s. In fact, an A is now the most common grade given in college.”

Murray, Phillips, and many others believe that given the growing number of vacancies and new jobs in the technical and trade fields, we ought to start thinking differently about what sort of higher education is best for many students. “There are many good-paying jobs available today that, quite candidly, a four-year bachelor of arts degree does not prepare them for,” he notes, in a Forbes interview.

The good news, it seems, is that the U.S. isn’t alone in struggling to find a space for vocational education; the OECD report found that most western nations could take measures to help improve their educational systems in a way that facilitates better programming.

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