Want to know why it can be tougher to get an appointment with your electrician or your plumber than with your doctor? The answer is simple: Our national and state policies funnel most high school graduates into colleges and universities. Even young people who show an interest in vocational training are urged to study computer technology.
“College for all” is not working. Forty percent of those who enroll in college drop out. And not enough young people are mastering important trade skills. While technology matters, society also needs welders, electricians, plumbers, landscapers, woodworkers, nurses and other health care workers, auto mechanics, and chefs. All important trade skills that now pay handsomely. Education is the solution to almost everything, said George Eastman of Kodak fame. Yet we seldom talk about education for jobs like these. And, when we do, the language is often disparaging. “Trade school” is one popular term of disapproval, suggesting that plumbing and similar activities are unworthy activities. Let’s get one thing straight: these are real occupations.
Support for vocational training is critical. It is expensive and beyond the means of many families. Vocational programs range from $50,000 to $200,000 for a four-year program (plus room and board), although there are two-year certificate programs in fields like furniture design and one-year programs in others like welding.
The late educator John W. Gardner said it best: “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as 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.” I’ve been involved in two programs that are trying to do something about this problem. In Florida, Monroe County and Ocean Reef are hard-pressed to find enough skilled workers. The Ocean Reef Foundation is helping raise money for a new campus of the College of the Florida Keys. Set to open in the fall of 2021, it will offer bachelor’s degrees, certificates, and workforce training in business, marine science, diving, marine engineering, hospitality, culinary, nursing, EMT, public safety, and more.
On Nantucket, that small island 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, we are finding ways to support kids who want to work in the trades. We still send about three-quarters of our high school graduates on to advanced education, but a growing number now receive scholarships that support their vocational training. Unfortunately, the number of these scholarships remains minuscule compared to college scholarships. A few years ago, the Nantucket Golf Club Foundation realized that young people with a vocational bent were being short-changed and launched a program to support students taking a different track. We’re in the second year of our Vocational Scholarship program, providing three scholarships to graduating Nantucket High School seniors attending technical schools.
“Education has always been a dream of mine,” says Malkia Blake, a recent high school graduate who came to the U.S. from Jamaica. “It is not a common experience in my family, and education is one of the few ways I’ve seen other people escape from the grasp of poverty and illiteracy.” Malkia is attending the Culinary Institute of America on a scholarship – a vocational scholarship. Blaise Flegg completed a 16-month course for Welding Certification. A mobile welder for a small company, he was able to get an education in welding and put some of the money that would have gone into tuition into equipment for his trade. “Down the road, I hope to start my own company.”
It’s time to acknowledge that what matters is continuing to study and learn. Not attending a four-year college. Today’s high school students understand that now they can have the best of both worlds with vocational training. They are guaranteed jobs when they finish the program and get to work at jobs they love.
Supporting vocational programs like this will strengthen our economy and enable countless young people to live fulfilling lives. It will also make it easier to get a plumber when you need one.
Ed Hajim, Chairman Emeritus of the University of Rochester and Chairman of High Vista Strategies, has personally provided more than 200 scholarships to deserving students.
Written By Ed Hajim