The idea that all college students are the same, or that there is only one way to prepare for a productive work life, is harmfully wrong. High school to college to career works for some. High school to work to college — or high school to trade to retirement no college — also works. Universities diminish opportunity and effectiveness while simultaneously crippling economic growth by suggesting a single route to employment. Accepting and misguidedly encouraging all students to pursue a university education — regardless of preparation, interest, or ability — serves no one.
Robert Maynard Hutchins said, “Education is not a substitute for experience. It is preparation for it. There is no substitute for experience.”
Many students want and need vocational/technical educational opportunities, while some may waste time and money in college. Roland Anglin, of Rutgers University, points to a growing problem nationally in an April 21, 2014, piece in the NJSP Spotlight, “Currently, vo-tech schools serve approximately 32,000 students, but in 2013 they had to turn away about 17,000 additional applicants who could not be accommodated.”
Anglin says industry partnerships that exist between community colleges and corporate giants like IBM should be cultivated for the opportunity they provide. Debunking the commonly heard, “Are we not then producing drones and limiting the chance for kids to get a liberal education,” is important work. A liberal education is invaluable for some, and worthless for others. Who is served if hundreds of thousands of students are choking on debt, dropping out, and/or vagrant?
The Manufacturing Institute’s 2011 report suggests that 75 percent of the respondents to their annual survey identify a key problem: “Workforce shortages or skills deficiencies in skilled production roles are having a significant impact on their ability to expand operations or improve productivity.” Little has changed in three years.
In construction the going gets really tough. A March 7, 2013, Forbes report sums up the building industry challenge forebodingly: “America’s Skilled Trades Dilemma: Shortages Loom as Most-In-Demand Group of Workers Ages.” Retiring carpenters, plumbers, pipe fitters, and welders leave a “craft gap” that too many young people have been seductively coaxed out of by glossy ads, Madison Avenue hype, fancy buildings, five-star dining, and a seemingly endless flow of free cash to go to college for jobs that don’t exist. To what end? Where is transparent, responsible, university leadership in this equation?
And, as unsympathetic as so many in the university sphere are to “big energy,” escalating production costs — driven in part by a sparse labor force — face us every day in utility bills and at the gas pump. Jack Kaskey reported in the Start-Telegram April 1, 2014, that “Chevron Phillips’ ethylene and polyethylene plastics plants will cost $1 billion more than the original $5 billion estimate, primarily because of higher labor costs.”
Unfortunately, economic hills and valleys put many skilled workers in energy and construction on a precarious roller coaster of plenty or scarcity. Universities should belly-up-to-the-bar and offer management and leadership insight, wisdom and education necessary for increasing job opportunity on an individual’s career journey. And colleges should focus on people 18 and fresh from the prom, or 35 with a journeyperson’s card in pocket. Dexterity and nimbleness are required, with academic excellence as true north for all students.
These ponderings are not the exclusive domain of Ivy League economists and educational leaders. Woody Smith, of Cottondale, Ala., recently penned this plea to The Tuscaloosa News: “I have tried for the past two decades to stress the importance of career tech education for our area high schools. America continues to have a shortage of skilled trades workers. These skilled trades are losing workers every day as the baby boom generation retires.”
Our universities have a leadership mantle to map with meaningful measures to mediate this national dilemma, or risk diminished voice as partners for intellectual and economic progress.
Three things are required: 1) encourage students uninterested or underprepared for college to find alternative routes to careers that may not require a college degree, 2) respond to the changing needs of workers who begin professional life as electricians, or carpet installers, and decide they want to study engineering or business, 3) embrace offerings that meet the student needs one-at-a-time rather than a-one-size-fits-all model.