How we could revitalize vocational education in Minnesota

You may have noticed from a few posts I’ve made that I’ve been hanging out this week at conference on the need for more vocational-technical education — a gathering I referred to in a post a few weeks ago.

Bill Symonds of Harvard — who’s also a Minnesota native — brought about 200 officials from education, government and business to both MnSCU headquarters and the Minneapolis Community and Technical College to discuss ways of developing a strong vo-tech system here.

He’s using ideas developed in the report above, Pathways to Prosperity, that he and his colleagues recently put out.

The basic idea is this:

The United States is an outlier among industrialized nations in its approach to vocational-technical education. Instead of viewing it as a practical, enriching way to get a great many of our high school students into meaningful careers, we devalue it as a second-class system.

As a result, we’ve pushed far too many students into getting four-year degrees for which they are unprepared. Their lack of success put us among the world leaders in drop-out rates, and they go begging for jobs even while our industries have a hard time finding graduates with the skills they need.

Meanwhile, Minnesota is among the states with the greatest need for skilled workers in the coming years.

This is a serious disconnect.

Yet we can learn from other countries, Symonds says, where business, government and schools have worked together to produce successful apprenticeship programs :

“A lot of countries are facing the same problems we are. Their workers earn high income, so businesses can’t compete by lowering wages. But if you look at (successful foreign apprenticeship systems such as those at) BMW and Mercedes, students are there on the line, but also getting a lot of theoretical knowledge (through company classwork). When they’re done, they’re at least as prepared as a graduate from a (U.S.) community college.”

How much of this is new is unclear. Though the need for more vo-tech is not new to me, the ideas outlined by Symonds are.

In any case, you can read the report above for the full story and supporting stats. I’ll just give you the main ideas I got from the conference:

Students need more choices — not just the four-year degree — after high school.

Those could include:

  • Community colleges. As a nation we’ve underinvested in them. They one of the largest components of our higher education system, and they plays a critical role. But they don’t get much in the way of resources. (I’ve already written about the stigma they face here in Minnesota.)
  • Apprenticeships. Many students learn better when they get hands-on experience. They can see concrete results and take pride in measurable progress. They can feel part of a trade they love, get feedback from their employer, and learn many of the social and personal skills necessary for success in that field. And in many cases they can feel confident that a job awaits them.
  • Military/community service: Symonds said the education sector can learn from the U.S. military, which has long used hands-on training (mixed with some classwork) to prepare many of its soldiers for various positions. “It doesn’t send them to remedial classes,” he said.

Employers need to play a major role.

I’ll write more about this later, but industry is at the center of it all. It needs to let the education field know what skills it needs, and work with educators and the state to build programs that teach those skills. It would be invaluable in the area of career counseling, and could help students make the transition from school into work. (Being a source of jobs would also help.)

We must create an understanding among youth, government, schools and business. Students and their families should know what employers, governments and schools will provide to help them get onto a suitable career path, and they should understand what’s expected of them.

A number of advanced countries do this, such as Great Britain, Australia and the Netherlands, Symonds says. They let youth know about the need for a certain level of education, that the state will provide the necessary support to reach it, but that students also need to take responsibility as well. Dropping out means losing social benefits.

So how do we start?

Symonds suggests two main ways to begin — one general and one specific:

1. Start changing the culture.

In business, government and education, vocational education needs to be presented as a standard, viable, respected option for students. Shop classes, for example, might need to return to high schools, and vocational-technical education should be discussed in high school career counseling.

Symonds told MnSCU officials:

“We have to overcome some cultural barriers. We have to get over the idea that career education is second-best education. … Many high schools have eliminated their shop classes, because they want to keep (students) in class all day. But look at (aspiring) surgeons: They’re learning with their hands all day.”

2. Beef up career counseling.

This is a concrete step that will help students be ready for the workforce, because they’ll have thought through what paths are right for them, Symonds said. Many students would jump at the chance to learn a trade, but they just aren’t told of the opportunities available to them — because right now counseling is woefully inadequate.

In his address to MnSCU officials, he said:

“We need to elevate career (counseling) to world-class levels. We’ve really de-emphasized career education. It’s a fundamental oversight. It’s not a call for radical reform; it’s just common sense. If a person of 14 really doesn’t know where to go, he’s not going to get there.”

Much of that means beefing up the overworked counseling staff, where each counselor often  juggles numerous types of counseling and must see dozens — or even hundreds — of students.

It’s not just colleges that are failing:

“Even our elite colleges are doing almost nothing in the way of career counseling or career guidance.”

Symonds acknowledges that many European countries rely on “tracking” — the early grouping of young students into college-bound and vocational-bound pathways — which many Americans see as unfair.

He doubts one could import such a system into the United States, but seems to think a strong vocational-technical education system here won’t need it.

So what’s he doing about it?

As an initial step at the MCTC session on Tuesday, he had a 150 or so education, government and business leaders break up into groups to think up ways to build the system.

One group said it would survey businesspeople about what students should be learning — and then develop an education agenda based on that. Business leaders would then discuss it with school boards and college deans.

Another came up with a way to recruit retirees both to mentor students and connect education officials to the business community.

Is such a start enough?

And would the system work?

There are lots of questions. And the idea faces some obstacles, one of which I’ll write about later.

But it’s an interesting international way of looking at some of the problems plaguing our higher-education system.