Educate to Hire

With Rhode Island mired in double-digit unemployment and employers expressing a frustration with finding workers with the right skills for today’s jobs (and those of tomorrow), improving our education system is a top state priority. Despite persistent low test scores for our public school students, a concentrated effort is under way to improve those scores and boost the odds that students don’t continue to be advanced to the next class – or graduate – without mastering their course work and requirements for each successive grade. Teachers are now being held up to a higher standard for effectiveness in the classroom and being graded on their performance.

We are making progress in education, and news coming out of the Board of Regents to facilitate more vocational and technical training at the high school level is most encouraging because that’s exactly what we need. The Regents are about to approve new regulations that deliver resources in the form of counseling and curriculum programs to our schools for moving more students over to a technical/vocational career path than one of general studies. Governor Chafee’s proposed budget also includes more money for career and technical education.

Let me state my opinion here: what our economy needs are not more social studies or psychology majors, or certainly lawyers, but students coming into the workforce with technical skills geared to the jobs that are out there waiting to be filled – jobs with solid employment and earning potential. These jobs range through the traditional “blue collar” trades to training in technical skills applicable to jobs in healthcare, information technology, construction, design and graphics, video and media, robotics, clean energy, and manufacturing.

Yes, all students should receive grounding in the humanities, and they especially need to know how to communicate and understand complex language for specific career fields, but it will be their acquired technical skills and not a general education preparation that will make them ready candidates for tomorrow’s workforce.

For too long in this country we have maintained a bias against jobs that require manual labor or making things, jobs that don’t necessarily require a college career path. Well-meaning parents tend to insist on their children going to a four-year college and look down upon the choice of a technical school path that ends up with training and skills directly leading to a job. The bias has been that those jobs aren’t going to lead to a good enough income or career path. Implicitly, there’s a feeling that society doesn’t value jobs of that nature. On the contrary, jobs of that nature can provide very good jobs, earning power, and a real career over a working life.

Attitudes that belittle anything but a college career path have not served us well in an increasingly complex economy where the required depth of job skills has deepened. Providing those deep skills sets tailored for application to specific jobs and industries is the role of training schools. In Europe, a four-year university path is reserved for far fewer professions than here in America – students intending to become doctors, lawyers, scientists and a handful of other professions get university-level degrees; everyone else gets a technical degree provided by government sponsored schools that concentrate their curriculum in just a few related areas.

Here in Rhode Island we have excellent vocational training schools at the secondary level - schools like Davies Career & Technical, for example – and we have excellent post-high school technical education institutions like New England Tech. Johnson & Wales has built its reputation and enrollment on study programs with direct job applications – its culinary and hospitality disciplines are as directly tied to jobs after graduation as any college curriculum could be. The Community College of RI is also placing more and more emphasis on educational preparation for jobs and is partnering with businesses as part of that process.

President Obama said recently that he wants to see an America where every student goes to college. That’s the right goal, of course, but what’s really behind that statement is the urgent realization that our students need training linked directly to jobs. The days of viewing higher education as a leisurely pathway to becoming a well-rounded person have passed. The best way to facilitate landing a job is to focus more on vocational and technical oriented education provided by tech schools and community colleges. These schools are our best hope for providing our children with the job skills they, and their future employers, will need in tomorrow’s economy.