Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Value of a Skilled Workforce

My apologies, this blog was truly a ghost town over the past two months. This spring has been particularly hard at work. I feel like my high school just survived the perfect storm and we're laying around on the beach trying to spit out salt water and catch our breath. Like many schools in Oregon, we're trying to survive on fewer dollars which ultimately means fewer teachers and fewer elective programs. Let me explain why your son or daughter will experience reduced opportunities for elective study in the coming decade.

As the state ratchets up graduation requirements (which I support), there's a tendency to apply more teaching staff to students who are struggling to pass state tests (which I do not support). In Oregon, all high school students are required to pass math and english state assessments as a graduation requirement. Students at my high school who do not pass these tests by their sophomore year are usually enrolled in a "Math Skills" or "Lit Skills" course until they achieve a passing score. This is in addition to their regular english and math class in a given semester, and at the expense of an elective course. Although the teaching quality and intention are honorable, this is largely perceived as a joke by our students. Students refer to these classes as "Math Jail" and other less appropriate nicknames. Apt for the metaphor, when students pass the test they are released from these classes but usually too late to join an elective class in progress. In theory, I support this practice. Yes, I want all graduates to be literate and capable in math. But this practice has dangerous repercussions. Elective teachers are usually the first heads on the chopping block when cuts are made, which means programs get closed and there are fewer elective opportunities for students.

I'm the head of the Career and Technical Education department at our school, which is commonly referred to as "CTE". We encompass all the vocational electives you took when you were in high school - Business, Technology, Culinary Arts, Auto, Metals, Woods, Drafting, etc. We teach reading, writing, vocabulary and math as a standard part of our curriculum, yet we've had a very hard time keeping these programs open amidst shrinking state funding and higher graduation requirements. My job is not at risk. I've been teaching now for a decade, which based on our union contract puts me out of harms way (can't get into unions, Wisconsin, and all those nightmares in this post!) However, we've had a hard time keeping younger CTE teachers employed, and retirees are rarely replaced. As a result, high schools end up offering elective programs based on "who's left to teach?" rather than, "what's best for our students?" If you've ever wondered why your local high school offers culinary arts but not automotive or metals courses, this is probably why. We are not aligned with the demands of the local economy. For example, I teach computer science and digital media. Realistically my students should move to San Francisco, Portland, or Seattle if they want jobs.

A peek into national averages shows that only 25% of U.S. students attempt a four year institution after high school, and even fewer graduate with a college degree. Sad, but true - high schools are preparing kids for a post-secondary college pathway that most students do not choose to travel. As a result of this trend, my elective staff has aligned ourselves tightly with two year associate degrees and one year certificate programs at our local community college. However, I'm not sure that students see their career path clearly. I think we have a long way to go. This troubling data point gets me thinking about 75% of our current graduating class. What are three out of four grads going to do when they leave high school?

Mike Rowe, of “Dirty Jobs” fame, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation last month as part of their hearing on "Manufacturing Our Way to a Stronger Economy". He talked at length about America’s lack of skilled tradespeople, and the fact that we will need young people to work in trades to maintain our service-oriented lifestyle. In this excerpt, he addresses the skills gap in our country and how high schools are part of the problem:
I believe we need a national PR Campaign for Skilled Labor. A big one. Something that addresses the widening Skills Gap head on, and reconnects the country with the most important part of our workforce. Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The Skills Gap is real, and it’s getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They’re retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them. Alabama’s not alone. A few months ago in Atlanta I ran into Tom Vilsack, our Secretary of Agriculture. Tom told me about a governor who was unable to move forward on the construction of a power plant. The reason was telling. It wasn’t a lack of funds. It wasn’t a lack of support. It was a lack of qualified welders.

In general, we’re surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn’t be. We’ve pretty much guaranteed it. In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of “higher education” to such a lofty perch, that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled “alternative.” Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as “vocational consolation prizes,” best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of “shovel ready” jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.
Mike’s words are a excellent reminder that we need to hold on to high school programs that teach skilled trades and a connection to the world of work. Moreover, how about teaching literacy and math in a relevant and applied manner through CTE courses instead of doubling-up on traditional english and math classes? If you are a parent, I urge you to redefine your own high school "shop" experience and see the potential value in training your own child for a skilled trade through high school CTE programs. There are good paying jobs for young people who have the specific skills that our economy needs.

Check out Mike's full testimony here... Inspiring stuff!

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