At their inception, the first priority of American vocational schools was preparing students for careers in fields that did not require a professional college degree. A student at a vocational school could be expected to go to class, learn his trade, and stay in a working class profession for the rest of his life. This expectation held through much of the twentieth century, from the signing of the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917, which funded the nation’s first vocational schools, until the late 1970’s when technological advancement and outsourcing undercut traditionally American working class jobs.
Like so many other institutions struggling to stay afloat in the ever turbulent market, vocational schools were forced to adapt. Starting in the 1970s, vocational schools could not be expected to provide students with the high paying union jobs it once could as working class jobs began to be replaced by machines and smiling faces abroad, both of which required no health insurance or pension.
Increasing the need for adaptation, the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2001, requires students nationwide to pass certain performance benchmarks set by the Department of Education in order for their school to receive federal funding. NCLB has forced many vocational schools to shut their doors because their students could not test to its standards, for which they were not trained. The act requires that vocational students perform at the same standard as their traditionally schooled counterparts, despite vocational schools’ obviously separate purpose.
Vocational schools were left neglected and underfunded until recently, when states like Massachusetts started to change course and adjust to twenty-first century demands. Vocational schools began supplementing their curricula with math and science and began offering classes in non-vocational academic areas, concurrently spending millions of dollars on the recruitment and retention of quality teachers. They began appealing to not only quality teachers but also quality students. Many students in the state of Massachusetts have turned down prestigious high schools in favor of vocational schooling.
Why would a student turn down a high school that would prepare them for a prestigious, expensive, liberal arts college for a vocational school? The answer lies in the heart of conservatism. Conservatives value hard skills. We believe that a teenager with a free vocational school plumbing background can do more good for society than a philosophy graduate buried in student debt at an Ivy League school, who likely will have a lower salary than the plumber.
Despite American vocational schools’ hardships in the past, they are useful tools for restoring what is broken in both American manufacturing and other desperately needed non-financial sector services. It is a shame that we as a country continue to dump millions of dollars into failing institutions with no vision of change, such as the auto industry, yet still have no plans of supporting those with potential. The United States leads the world in foreign direct investment. The world believes in us, lets believe in ourselves. United States manufacturing is not dead. We can use vocational schools and teach the next generation of manufacturers.
Let’s invest in our plumbers. Let’s invest in our pipe fitters. Let’s not only provide funding for vocational schools nationwide, but also encourage students to pursue vocations. Frowning upon “working class” jobs is a strange modern tic for a country that values work and self-reliance.
Moreover, it is an ignorant tic. Many vocational jobs, including the master plumber vocation, earn upwards of $80,000 per year without an expensive four-year degree. And those who lead and run their own business can earn even more.
Many students will continue to attend top universities, as is proper. But that is not most students. Much more can be done for these other kids, those who only seek hard skills and decent pay. Through vocational education, we can wrest them away from the expensive trap of pre-professional programs and rebuild the hollowed-out working class.
—Jake Shumard is a freshman studying agricultural science
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