Rob Christensen

Our schools are focused on filling colleges, not jobs. Here are some ideas to fix that.

Josh Outlaw (left) uses a plasma torch to cut a piece of steel as fellow students look on during the metal working class at Scotland County High School in Laurenburg, N.C. Friday, September 23, 2016. At right is Mick Davis who will grab the hot metal before it hits the floor. The high school has a vocational program second to none to help students get real life skills that can provide work as soon as they graduate.
Josh Outlaw (left) uses a plasma torch to cut a piece of steel as fellow students look on during the metal working class at Scotland County High School in Laurenburg, N.C. Friday, September 23, 2016. At right is Mick Davis who will grab the hot metal before it hits the floor. The high school has a vocational program second to none to help students get real life skills that can provide work as soon as they graduate. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Shakespeare is not for everyone.

I broke down this past week and replaced my 42-year-old, dog-eared, yellowed and musty Complete Works of William Shakespeare with a new copy.

I retired an old friend who had enriched my life. But I understand that the Bard is not everyone’s cup of tea.

My father, a skilled factory worker, got along fine without Shakespeare. So did most of the fellows I grew up with who went on to lead productive lives as plumbers, machinists, telephone company workers and so forth.

Many young people in North Carolina and across the country may not be interested in obtaining a traditional liberal arts education but would like to learn jobs skills that would enable them to earn a good living.

Experts call the problem “disconnected” youths – those aged 16 to 24 who are neither in school nor holding down jobs. It is a recipe for the disaster that is unfolding in large parts of the country.

You can’t see the problem in the Triangle, because employment here is more akin to California’s Silicon Valley.

But in large swaths of rural North Carolina – including huge parts of the east, the Piedmont, and west – there are much higher percentage of “disconnected” youths in regions that more closely resemble West Virginia, according to a study released earlier this year, Measure of America, by the Social Science Research Council.

It is a major reason why rural America – and rural North Carolina – is in crisis: with a rise in opioid abuse, a drop in marriage rates, a rise in out-of-wedlock births and so forth. If the fathers are not holding down useful jobs, their girlfriends don’t want to take a risk on marrying someone who would bring no material benefits to a marriage.

Last week, two think tanks reported that only 39 percent of working-class adults (ages 18-55) were married, compared with 56 percent of middle- or upper-class adults.

But the United States seems to be slow in responding to this problem, with its public school system still mainly geared to preparing kids for college rather than readying them for the workforce.

As The New York Times reported last month, only 6 percent of American high school students were enrolled in a vocational course of study. In Great Britain, 42 percent were on the vocational track. In Germany it was 59 percent, in the Netherlands it was 67 percent and in Japan it was 25 percent.

The same is true for apprenticeship programs, which in Europe are respected routes to good jobs. Between 50 percent and 70 percent of young people in Switzerland, Germany and Austria are involved in an apprenticeship. In the U.S. only 1.5 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are involved in apprenticeships.

“Presenting a traditional four-year college degree as the brass ring all high school graduates should reach for, and anything else as second best, is counter productive,” said a report released earlier this year by the Social Science Research Council. “It offers nothing to young adults who are not interested in a bachelor’s degree, but who nonetheless need post-high-school training of some kind in order to embark on careers that offer economic security.”

West Virginia, a state battered by a declining coal industry and hammered by the opioid crisis, has become a leader in technical education. The percent of its high school seniors who have completed a technical course of study was up to 37 percent in 2016 from 18 percent in 2010.

Students are trained in state industries such as health, coal and fracking. Students punch a time clock, are assigned professional roles like foreman and safety supervisor and are given several days of vacation, according to The Times. Some use the vacation time to go deer hunting.

Traditional math and English teachers have been reassigned to technical schools to make sure students still gain the basic academic skills.

The students are also drug tested, just as they are on the job.

The efforts in West Virginia are part of new skills-based training that seems to be gaining momentum.

Such new approaches have been getting support across the ideological spectrum, from Republicans such as President Donald Trump to Democrats such as former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

“We desperately need to revive a second route to the middle class for people without four-year college degrees as manufacturing once was,” Reich, now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Times. “We have to move toward a system that works.”

North Carolina has also been working in recent years to upgrade its vocational and technical program – initiatives that have received bipartisan support from Democrats such as former governors Mike Easley and Beverly Perdue and Republicans such as former Gov. Pat McCrory and the GOP-dominated legislature.

Mark Johnson, the new superintendent of public instruction and a Republican, strongly supports a major shift in thinking in the public schools – where not every student is pushed toward the goal of earning a four-year bachelor of arts degree.

Drew Elliott, his spokesman, notes that there are many high-paid, high-skill jobs that industry needs to fill that do not require a four-year degree.

The NCWorks program works with the 58-campus state community college system – one of the nation’s largest – to provide job training.

Among other things, it has an apprenticeship program, which in February included 5,000 apprentices with various companies that combined classroom with on-the job training. The largest company was Charter Communications (the old Time Warner Cable) with 672 apprentices.

Some of the most interesting ideas may not be top-down – they may be bubbling up. One of the state’s leaders is the K-64 program run by Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory which connects area public schools with local businesses in promoting job shadowing, internships, co-ops, work-study programs and apprenticeships.

As Johnson said, North Carolina needs to continue to do some deep thinking about how to reach the kids who are not college bound and help them build successful lives.

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