Trump Needs To Free Vocational Classes From Their Bad Rep

December 23, 2016, 10:00 AM UTC
Cloudport communal office space
PORTLAND, ME - MAY 24: Taylor Cook, a local carpenter, carries a board to a chop saw as contractor Ryan Glidden works on framing in the space that will become Cloudport on Federal Street, Tuesday, May 24, 2016. The business is owned by Portland-raised basketball star Nik Caner-Medley and is designed as a shared office environment. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Gabe Souza—Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

In his book, The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump recounts how his father, Fred, couldn’t afford to go to college.

“Instead, he went to work as a carpenter’s helper for a homebuilder in Queens,” Trump writes, explaining that “he was better with his hands than most.” His dad did take some night classes, and with this training and his natural smarts, “he was able to show the other carpenters . . . shortcuts, such as how to frame a rafter with a steel square.

From these modest beginnings, the Trump real estate empire was born.

Now, President-elect Trump has a remarkable chance to make clear that there is more than one path in America to get ahead. And the route chosen doesn’t necessarily have to include a degree from a four-year college—though acquiring relevant knowledge and skills must surely be part of the mix.

This will not be an easy message to convey. As a new study illustrates, career and technical education, or CTE, remains an inferior option in the minds of all too many students, parents, and school administrators.

It has been this way since we used the term “vocational education,” and students who were regarded as not very bright were tracked into such classes. Once they were parked there, expectations were low.

These days, with so many people feeling insecure about their children’s economic future, there couldn’t be a more perfect time to turn CTE into a prudent—and proud—alternative.

“Part of the American dream is that every one of our kids should go to college,” says Robin Kramer, the executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, a philanthropic initiative of Harbor Freight Tools, a discount retailer. “We need to change the culture around this.”

The study, based on an in-depth survey conducted by Harbor Freight Tools with more than 500 CTE educators across the nation, found that “the widely held belief that college is for all” is one of their top challenges in delivering high-quality programming.

Altogether, some 94% of those in high school take classes that are considered within the realm of CTE—manufacturing, construction, information technology, health science, and a dozen other such “career clusters.” About 30% of students concentrate in one of these areas rather than pursue a traditional college-prep curriculum.

But despite such robust numbers, CTE is still not valued. In the Harbor Freight Tools survey, the word “stigma” came up over and over.

Learning to work with wood “doesn’t sound as important as core graduation requirements,” a high school carpentry teacher remarked during a focus group convened by Harbor Freight Tools in Denver. He added that because his class is considered “an elective,” students get pulled out when they fall behind in their academic subjects.

“We are seen as secondary, and the kids feel this too,” he said. “This is wrong.”

Indeed, an effective CTE program can keep an otherwise disinterested student motivated, and prevent him or her from dropping out. It can then lead to a decent-paying job, particularly in those fields where employers say they are trying to cope with a serious “skills gap.”

“This is not the get-your-hands dirty manufacturing that existed 30 years ago,” says Michael Connet, senior director for outreach and partner development at the Association for Career and Technical Education. “Even where it is manual labor, it’s totally different now with robotics and computers. Students have to be prepared coming into that space.”

At its best, CTE teaches students to be more numerate and literate and sharper critical thinkers. “As many wise people have said, it takes brains to work with your hands,” notes Kramer. Such classes also impart vital “soft skills” such as punctuality and the ability to collaborate.

“When not presented in a narrow way, CTE is about problem-solving and troubleshooting, not just dexterity,” says Mike Rose, a professor of education at UCLA and the author of The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker.

Done well, CTE cultivates industriousness and grit. And it instills in young people the expectation that learning must be a lifelong endeavor, especially when work is changing rapidly and skills can become obsolete in a flash. Even if getting a university diploma isn’t the aim, attending a community college and obtaining industry-recognized credentials are often crucial next steps.

The sticking point, CTE advocates acknowledge, is that many of these courses aren’t very strong. There are multiple reasons for this, including difficulty in recruiting and retaining experienced teachers; a lack of meaningful involvement from industry (which is the key to ensuring that what is taught has a real-world application); and a tendency in some locations to still use CTE as a dumping ground for students who’ve been written off—often the poor.

Decreasing dollars are also an issue. Annual federal funding has declined to about $1.1 billion from $1.3 billion over the past decade. Nearly 40% of those in the Harbor Freight Tools survey reported budget cuts during recent years, with some skilled-trades classes eliminated.

The good thing is that there has been growing recognition of CTE’s promise from both sides of the political aisle. Hillary Clinton spoke about the virtues of CTE on the campaign trail. House Speaker Paul Ryan has also embraced it. So has Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who as governor of Indiana proclaimed: “All students deserve the same opportunity for success, whether they want to go to college or start their career right out of high school. This is not about a Plan A and a Plan B. This is about two Plan As.”

Yet it will very likely take Trump—and the bully pulpit of the presidency—to really elevate CTE.

If he truly wants to help the working class, as he claims, he should push Congress to allocate significantly more money for such programs. Above all, he should take the lead in rewriting the narrative surrounding CTE so as to provide its students with something sorely missing: respect.

Telling the story of Fred Trump might not be a bad place to start.

Rick Wartzman is senior advisor to the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. He is also author of the forthcoming book, The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America, due next spring.

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