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College is still the default dream of the overwhelming majority of young Americans: even among high school seniors in the bottom quarter of their class, more than 90 percent expect to go to college. But more and more Americans are starting to recognize that the dream no longer pays off as it once did.
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Employers Hold the Key to Better Career Training
Tamar Jacoby, The Manhattan Institute
Traditional vocational education has been in decline for decades. Born in the 1920s as Americans moved off the farm and as industry emerged as the engine of the US economy, voc ed was once a respected path from school to work. Until the 1950s, many companies, large and small, drew their workforce directly from high schools: youth were trained at the employer's expense and expected to make a career with the firm. This practice began to change after World War II, when college emerged as the preferred route into a new, white-collar middle class. In 1940, only 4.6 percent of Americans held a B.A.; by the early 1970s, the figure had more than tripled.

Voc ed fell from favor in the decades that followed, seen as a dead end or, at best, an inferior track. Few "shop" or "home ec" classes were intended to prepare young people for careers: in most schools, they were a dumping ground for less able students. The stigma only grew worse in recent decades as the concept of college-for-all took hold with a vengeance. The school standards movement, beneficial as it was for many, exacerbated the divide, as the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act and its champions preached the value of testing--tests geared entirely to college-readiness and academic standards--and resources followed test results.

Voc ed might have disappeared entirely if the college-for-all model, too, had not been fraying. College is still the default dream of the overwhelming majority of young Americans: even among high school seniors in the bottom quarter of their class, more than 90 percent expect to go to college. But more and more Americans are starting to recognize that the dream no longer pays off as it once did.

Fewer than 30 percent of Americans complete a four-year college education. Total US student debt now tops $1.2 trillion, with 39 million young people owing an average of $24,803 and many facing limited prospects in the labor market. Liberal arts or general studies majors can expect a starting salary of $36,988--but often not in the field of their choice and often not promising to lead to anything better. According to one stunning calculation by economists at Northeastern and Drexel Universities, in 2011, more than 50 percent of B.A. holders under 25 years old were out of work or underemployed. Yet employers in a broad range of industries report trouble finding workers with the skills to fill open jobs.

Manufacturing, construction, and healthcare, among other sectors, report severe and growing skilled-labor shortages, even in recent years in the face of persistently high unemployment. According to a 2011 survey by Deloitte Consulting LLP and the Manufacturing Institute, 82 percent of manufacturing companies are experiencing a moderate or serious skills gap, with more than 600,000 jobs--a striking 5 percent of all US manufacturing positions--unfilled at the time of the survey. A broader 2011 sounding, by the ManpowerGroup, found more than half of all US employers reporting difficulty filling jobs; the employers blamed applicants' lack of technical skills. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), even with 11.3 million Americans out of work, there are 3.7 million unfilled job openings. A common complaint from manufacturing human-resources departments: they place a job ad, and it results in 50 to 150 applicants, but no one who shows up is hirable because candidates lack the appropriate skills.

Academic and industry sources agree that today's shortages are the thin edge of a wedge. The situation across the skilled sectors is going to get worse in years to come, particularly for what labor economists call "middle-skill jobs": a category that includes construction journeymen, skilled manufacturing operatives, licensed practical nurses, health technicians, and mid-rung IT work. According to the BLS, the two fastest-growing jobs in America are home health aide and personal care aide, together likely to account for 1.3 million new positions between 2010 and 2020. According to Harry Holzer and Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute, jobs that require more than a little training but less than a B.A. account for close to half of all US employment. Anthony Carnevale predicts that 30 percent of the jobs created in the next five years will require less than a B.A. but more than a high school diploma--either an associate's degree or an occupational certificate.

Under pressure from these realities, a broad range of thinkers have begun to question the college-for-all model. From conservatives such as Charles Murray and former secretary of education William Bennett to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs such as PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, skeptics are challenging the nation's reigning educational orthodoxy. What they dispute is not the idea of college or the value of a liberal arts education but rather the notion that all young people must aspire to a four-year degree, no matter what their interests or where their talents lie. The dissenters' most convincing argument: one size does not fit all--and the nation can no longer afford the mismatch between what students are learning and the economy's growing need for skilled labor.

Into this breach--the space created by the dissenters--has sprung an unlikely coalition of educators and employers advancing a new model: career and technical education (CTE). The experimentation comes in many forms: CTE high schools, new investment in community colleges, industry-driven craft training, industry-sponsored occupational standards, career mentoring, internships, apprenticeships, and more.

New York City public schools have been in the vanguard: CTE programs have more than doubled under Mayor Bloomberg, and the P-TECH 9-14 "early college" high school developed in partnership with IBM has drawn national attention, including from President Obama. Other much-watched experiments are taking place in Tennessee and North Carolina, where state agencies are pioneering youth apprenticeship programs. High schools across the country are developing magnet schools with industry themes and trained CTE teachers. Other school systems from Florida to California are exposing younger and younger children to technical education and sophisticated STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills. Brand-name companies in a range of industries are strategizing about how to maximize their investment in workforce development. The National Association of Manufacturers has launched an ambitious effort to grant half a million occupational certifications by 2017. The academic world is abuzz, producing papers and holding conferences. Two influential reports, from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, have given the CTE movement new respectability, even as they spark expanded ferment and new activity.

Marlene Seltzer, president of Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit that has long been a leader in the field, captured some of the excitement at a recent conference: "Five or six years ago, this strategy sat on the margins of the discussion about education policy and education reform." Today, it's part of "the mainstream conversation. There has been a concerted effort to drive it ... and it's gaining a lot of traction."

Tamar Jacoby is president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small business owners working to advance better immigration law. She is a nationally known journalist and author. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard and Foreign Affairs, among other publications, and she is a regular guest on national television and radio. Refer to original article for related links and important documentation.


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