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The Compelling Need to Elevate Tech Ed

Our public education system is too focused on preparing students for four-year colleges. When an auto mechanic can pull down a six-figure salary, it’s clear that career and technical education should be getting a lot more support.

Many Americans complain about the sad state of public education. They say it is failing our children, not adequately preparing them for college or work, and not equipping America to be globally competitive. I hear this all the time, but I rarely see meaningful action that will lead to change. Most school budgets and resources go toward educating and preparing the best-equipped students for four-year colleges and universities. Others are left behind.

We need a new paradigm for public education that elevates career and technical education to the level of college prep and liberal arts education. By doing this, we will serve more at-risk students and better address the workforce needs of society. As it stands today, we don’t have enough workers trained in the technical fields. And there’s another incentive: Workers can make higher salaries in some technical occupations like computer science and building automation than they would in fields like the liberal arts, education or social services.

That was documented by a 2021 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Its researchers found that “16 percent of high school graduates, 23 percent of workers with some college education, and 28 percent of associate’s degree holders earn more than half of workers with a bachelor’s degree.” Graduates with associate degrees in computer and mathematical occupations, for example, have median lifetime earnings of $2.8 million, the same as median lifetime earnings for bachelor’s degree holders overall.

As a former president of a technical college in metropolitan Atlanta, I know firsthand the earning potential of some high-demand occupations like automotive technology, computer programming, practical nursing and welding. I had extensive conversations with leadership from these industries. One such discussion was with an owner of a luxury-car dealership in Atlanta who told me that when he hired our graduates he started them out at salaries of $65,000 a year and that after a few years on the job they were making over six figures. Yet even paying at this high rate, he couldn’t find enough auto mechanics to hire.

These salaries are impressive and show the continued importance of finishing high school and earning a four-year or two-year degree, or an industry-recognized certificate. But they also demonstrate that there are multiple pathways to financial success. Public-school officials, though, continue to treat K-12 education as if it were exclusively a prelude to a four-year college or university degree.

The federal government has done its part. Barack Obama’s administration extolled the benefits of technical education as early as 2009. President Joe Biden, in signing the 2022 federal budget into law, increased the Carl D. Perkin Technical and Educational grant funding by $45 million, putting total funding for the program at $1.38 billion. Many state leaders, including in my home state of Georgia, also have funded career grants to incentivize residents to get a degree, certificate or credential in a high-demand field, recognizing that over 60 percent of all jobs today require some higher education beyond a high school diploma. And local governments have workforce investment boards that train under-resourced residents and then pair them with private employers.

Public-school officials, for some reason, have been slow to address society’s needs for technical education. It is not like they are getting the job done with K-12 education: Every year, more than 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the U.S. About 25 percent of high school freshmen fail to graduate on time, and a much larger number are not ready for work when they do graduate. Only 44 percent of high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges, while 23 percent enroll in two-year colleges. And, sadly, high school dropouts commit about 75 percent of all crimes.

Considering all of this, how do we bring the promise of technical education to more worthy students?

First, society must remove the stigma that has become attached to tech ed. This may stem from the days when vocational education programs were for slow learners and problem students. But today’s tech-ed programs are not like the old voc-ed programs. Today, they include smart technology, robotics, precision manufacturing and medical coding — all high-paying jobs with sustainable wages.

Ideally, students should be introduced to these fields early in life, certainly by the age of 12. If we begin introducing students to the fun and exciting fields of technology in an early grade, this may encourage more of them to complete their education down the road. I believe getting young people excited about tech ed would not only challenge them to learn the math embedded within their fields of interest but would also give purpose and context to their education overall.

And beyond technical skills, industry leaders tell us they need students with good social skills, who can work in team environments, collaborate and think creatively. Tech-ed students who spend four hours in a traditional classroom setting and an additional four hours learning on the job might be less likely to get bored with learning. A student who goes on field trips to see how clean and smart auto mechanics’ service facilities are today — and learns that those technicians can take home six-figure annual salaries — might see himself or herself there one day.

Finally, COVID-19, whose effects seem thankfully to be lessening, has resulted in even greater shortages of skilled workers. Public education must do a better job helping industry address these shortages while providing skills to underserved students. This can be achieved by partnering with industry and labor organizations in apprenticeships, cooperative learning opportunities and internships.

It is time to reform public education. Time to give students pathways for success that may not include a coveted college or university degree. And time to take to heart my grandmother’s sage advice: There’s dignity in all work.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Government and education columnist
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