It used to be that everybody learned both academic and vocational subjects as part of their education. High school students would learn English literature and basic carpentry, physics and how to cook a well-balanced meal. Then, for a time, students were split into tracks by ability; the college-bound would take only academic subjects, and the others would take basic English, math and science classes plus shop class or home economics.
But because poorer or minority students were often pointed down the latter path, some parents objected, pointing out that just because their kids were working-class didn't mean they shouldn't get a shot at college. Which brings us to today, where most kids are on the college-prep path.
College isn't for everyone. As of 2014, 66 percent of high school students enrolled in college. Data from previous years show that of the students who applied, were accepted and enrolled in college, only 60 percent graduated in six years. That means out of a theoretical high school class of 100, 33 people never went to college in the first place, and of the 66 who did, 26 didn't graduate. That's 59 out of 100 students whose high school program (or life situations) didn't prepare them for the type of work they'll be doing for the rest of their lives.
And while about half of those who do graduate college are under- or unemployed, the U.S. simultaneously has a shortage of workers in manufacturing and building. "The U.S. economy has changed," writes Nicolas Wayman in Forbes. "The manufacturing sector is growing and modernizing, creating a wealth of challenging, well-paying, highly skilled jobs for those with the skills to do them. The demise of vocational education at the high school level has bred a skills shortage in manufacturing today, and with it a wealth of career opportunities for both under-employed college grads and high school students looking for direct pathways to interesting, lucrative careers."
It's not just that great jobs are going unfilled because students are pushed down the college path. When vocational programs aren't available, academically strong kids miss out too. I know, I was one of them.
Like many kids, when I was growing up, I was fascinated with mechanical things. I took apart and reassembled rotary phones, cassette players, a VCR, and successfully repaired my lawnmower several times. So naturally, by the time I was 14 or so, I really wanted to learn car mechanics. Not only would it be a fun thing to learn, it would be useful too, as I would be inheriting a car when I turned 16. And combined with my interest in science, it seemed that maybe it could lead to a career in engineering. Because my high school offered auto mechanics as part of a region-wide vocational program, I thought I could add that onto my course load with some careful maneuvering of classes.
The problem was, I was a strong student academically. And the part of New York where I'm from, like many other places, separated students into academic versus vocational training tracks — and never the twain shall meet. (Seriously, we never saw the kids who did the vocational program after they opted into it.) If I wanted to take classes in auto mechanics or electrical work, I would not also be able to complete my honors and AP college-prep courses. It was one or the other.
I stuck to the college track and never learned advanced mechanics, though the little I did know helped me get two jobs in science fields. In one position I built bespoke computers for a technology company because I knew how to use hand tools, and at the environmental scientist job I acquired with my B.S. in geology, there were all kinds of mechanical devices to use (and fix when they broke or malfunctioned).
Public high schools should be about preparing students for the real world, and the idea that just because someone studies to be a car mechanic doesn't mean they won't love Shakespeare or calculus is just as silly as assuming that someone headed to college doesn't need to know how to fix a car. The truth is, we all need to know many things in life, and it would make more sense to let students choose their own interests rather than have tracks to choose from (or only one choice). Sure, maybe I never would have really used auto mechanics in my eventual career as a writer, but I never really "use" trigonometry either — that doesn't mean it's not good to know it.
All students are losing out from a lack of non-academic classes in high schools.
Bringing back vocational programs for everyone would allow academically oriented kids to find new hobbies or new ways to solve problems, and would also destigmatize the jobs that they're connected to — which are necessary, interesting and challenging. There's more than one path to success: Electricians, plumbers, car mechanics and the like make far more money than writers do, after all.