Suddenly, vocational training back in vogue:
soars in 'career technical ed,' as demand grows for workers
with specific skills.
By Daniel B. Wood | Staff writer of The Christian Science
LOS ANGELES - Six years ago, as his 11th-grade classmates
struggled with the college-application ritual, Toby Hughes
tried to envision his future.
A Georgia honors student with a 1350 SAT score, he knew he
wanted to go into computer science, so he went to local computer
companies and asked what they wanted in an employee. "They
told me I would be more marketable if I had practical technical
training as opposed to theoretical academic training,"
says Mr. Hughes.
He began taking specialized computer-networking classes while
still in high school, landed a $52,000 job after graduating,
and now, at 24, makes well past that.
Similar scenarios are repeating so often that the world of
career technical training - once known somewhat disparagingly
as "vocational training" - is experiencing a renaissance
in America. Enrollment in technical education soared by 57
percent - from 9.6 million students in 1999 to 15.1 million
in 2004, the US Department of Education reported to Congress.
There's every indication that interest is continuing to rise,
as families struggle ever harder to afford the traditional
college education and as demand grows for skilled US workers
in fields such as aviation mechanics, computer technology,
electronics, global positioning, and trades ranging from culinary
arts to construction.
"American career technical education is being redefined
because the needs of the evolving US and world economies are
changing," says Darrell Luzzo, incoming president of
the National Career Development Association. "Educators
at all levels are recognizing that the world's employers increasingly
need skill sets that the conventional four-year college degree
The once-standard offerings of technical education - wood
shop, metal shop, machining - don't cut it in today's economy
"We are redefining almost everything that has to do
with the intersection of new technology and the global economy,"
says Mark Whitlock, CEO of Central Educational Center in Newnan,
Ga., a charter school. "The economy is changing and therefore
education has to continue to change."
Fields of study today are likely to include more forward-looking
careers: crime forensics, composite-plastic fuselage design,
robotics, nanotechnology, radiological diagnostics, 3-D animation,
and the burgeoning field of "industrial maintenance technology"
(keeping the high-tech systems in a modern industrial building
up and running).
"When a light-sensor toilet doesn't function anymore,
who ya gonna call? Not a regular plumber," says Bill
Murphy, recruiter for the McMurry Regional Training Center
in Casper, Wyo. "You need someone who knows how to program
Employer demand for such technical skills is prompting some
states - including North Carolina and Florida, perennial leaders
in education reform and experimentation - to revive or reinvent
their tech-ed programs. California, home to 1 in 9 US students,
sank $100 million into new technical education programs in
its 2006 budget. And in August, President Bush signed legislation
renewing the Carl Perkins Vocational and Technical Training
Act, boosting to $1.3 billion the amount states will get next
fiscal year for career technical education in high schools
and community colleges.
"High schools, community colleges, universities, parents,
and employers are all beginning to realize that ... to be
competitive, our educational system needs more than academic
theory," says Jan Bray, executive director of the Association
for Career and Technical Education. "They are realizing
there needs to be more relevance to the workplace, to what
students are interested in and to what the changing economy
Training with a specific job in mind
One result of that quest for workplace relevance is a rise
in partnerships among community/technical colleges, high schools,
A case in point is the pairing of RF MicroDevices in Greensboro,
N.C., with local Guilford Technical Community College. RFMD
has developed several programs to help train student operators
for his "water fab" facilities, which turn out integrated
"There's no place else around here where someone can
learn the skills necessary to perform efficiently in our facility,"
says Ralph Knupp of RFMD. "Someone who graduates with
a bachelor of arts would not arrive bringing the specific
experience we need. So vocational training is critical for
us to maintain our manufacturing strength in Greensboro."
North Carolina, which has seen its textile and furniture
industries contract dramatically in the face of foreign competition,
has relied heavily on its community college system, founded
in 1958, to redevelop and retrain displaced workers.
"We did a major study with industry and found that for
two-thirds of all bio-tech jobs in this state, no four-year
degree was necessary," says Martin Lancaster, president
of the North Carolina Community College system.
California revives a defunct program
In California, meanwhile, the renewed interest in tech ed
follows a 25-year decline in such instruction. About three-quarters
of high school technical programs were dismantled, and the
number of such high school courses dwindled from 40,000 to
24,000 in that time.
But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) supports targeted vocational
education, based on European models from his childhood. The
governor is touring the state in support of a November ballot
proposition that will provide $10 billion in bond money to
overcrowded schools, including 170 community colleges.
"The renaissance of career technical training is absolutely
confirmed in California," says Brice Harris, chancellor
of Los Rios Community College District in Sacramento. Fall
enrollment there is up 5,000 from last year, a 6 percent jump.
Companies clamoring for specific skills are driving much
of the tech-ed rebirth, analysts say.
"Industry has been complaining about shortages of skilled
labor they need, so they have been sharing that with college
administrations, counselors, and technical advisers,"
says Trent Munsey, CEO of Skills USA California, a state and
national organization that connects students, educators, industries,
and businesses. "They have been screaming for trained
people [coming] out of the school system as it is ... and
enticing people back to the trades."
The disconnect between employers and American education remains
a serious problem, say some observers.
"America still has way too many parents and students
reflexively applying to four-year colleges on the old adage
that in the long run, that is how to get to the top,"
says Peg Hendershot, director of Career Vision, a Chicago-based
career consulting service.
More than 90 percent of US high school seniors say they plan
to attend college, and about 70 percent of high school graduates
actually do go to college within two years, according to the
"Many more have been going to college without really
knowing why and finding out they don't acquire the skills
they need to get a job," says Ms. Hendershot. "Now
the conversation has started over how to create shorter, alternative