Point of View

Vocational training essential for future workers

April 1, 2014 

I’ve been pondering the issue of competency gaps among our young adults and the needs of business for over a decade. It is a complex issue, which may account for the appeal of scrutinizing a single aspect as if it were the root cause of the problem.

But because of its complexity and shifting human dynamics, it can only be analyzed holistically if a solution is to be found.

• Fact 1: We have a large percentage of employable youth under 25 ill equipped to meet the needs of employers. Repeated studies have verified that businesses are disappointed with the quality of applicants in specific areas. Primary among those are skills in critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and effective communications across all media platforms.

• Fact 2: The “American Dream” has been remade in the last 20 years to include the assumption that all youth will go to college. College is an academic preparation in learning how to learn philosophy, history, communications and furthering skills of logic and rhetoric. Colleges were never intended to be places for job preparation and the gradual drift into this belief has caused significant damage to the job readiness of many.

• Fact 3: Trade schools were instituted in the U.S. immediately following WWII to help “skill up” a large population of relatively unskilled adults to take on jobs in industry. Prior to that, technical skills were learned on the job or as an apprentice at the side of a journey level master. Trade skills are primarily manual in nature, such as sheet metal welding, plumbing, electrical, heating, automotive mechanic and typing.

• Fact 4: Since their inception, technical schools were intended to provide individuals in each community basic employable skills so they can enter the workforce, be productive, and earn a living wage. Over time, those trade schools became known as “community colleges.” In the 1990s those colleges began to compete directly with four-year colleges. The path taken moved them further into areas of academic theory and further away from learning a trade in a few months.

Those trade schools have all but vanished with the exception programs such as cosmetology and law enforcement. Many others once thought essential, such as plumbing, heating and air conditioning, nursing, and manual trades have spotty availability throughout the community college system. But as the nature of work has migrated to automated systems, the skills needed to perform those jobs, such as health care data management, include computer training that appears to be missing from the catalogs.

Among the jobs projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to grow most quickly that require no degree include the following with percentage of growth and average annual income: interpreters and translators, 46 percent, $45,000; plumbers, 21, $49,000; occupational therapy aide, 41, $49,000; and brickmason, 43, $44,000.

Few of North Carolina’s community colleges provide the training needed to secure these jobs.

In Craven County, none of the above programs are taught. Many of these positions cannot be outsourced to a country with cheaper labor. Plumbers are needed in every community and make a secure living wage.

The BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook provides a useful list of jobs with a rapidly growing need. The following require two-year programs, either certificate or degree. Note that several of these jobs are paid more than that of a university professor: radiation therapist, 24 percent, $77,000; nuclear medicine technologist, 20, $70,000; dental hygienist, 14, $70,000; registered nurse, 21, $65,000; and MRI technician, 24, $55,000.

Some official system needs to be in place to meet training needs for these skills, and the logical choice is to return the state of N.C. tax-supported two-year colleges to a focus on vocational training. The state has too many unemployed youth and businesses desperate for qualified staff, and this inequality should have been foreseen and acted on a decade ago.

I am a university professor and see the impact of this mismatch between need and state schools in the faces of students who struggle to master academic theories, become confused by books far beyond their reading skills and lack the critical thinking skills needed to pass my classes.

It is not their fault they are in the wrong place. It is ours, the educators, who have failed these neighbors and friends. Our sole purpose is to prepare our youth to become productive members of society and we need to give ourselves an F.

Vana Prewitt, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Mount Olive in Mt. Olive.

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