As companies offering construction, manufacturing, technical, and other hands-on services continue to struggle to find qualified workers, I found myself wondering, “Whatever happened to shop class?”
High school classes like wood shop, metal shop, and auto mechanics offered students of our generation an outlet for creativity, accomplishment, and a tangible product at the end of the term. More important, these courses exposed whole generations to the possibilities of earning an excellent living outside the corporate/academic world.
While American industry still needs people with the skills these classes teach, sometime between the end of the Cold War and the Great Recession, the country turned its back on the career and technical education.
“We didn’t just take the shop out of high school,” says Mike Rowe, host of the “Dirty Jobs” television show. “We took arts out of vocational arts, and that set the stage for presenting an entire category of viable jobs as some type of consolation prize.”
Schools, faced with pressure to raise test scores and send high proportions of their students to college, turned their backs on classes, tarring them with a stigma that manual labor is somehow less noble than office work. Unfortunately, depriving a generation or two of exposure to shop class has shielded many from discovering their true calling. Any potential interest in carpentry, mechanics, electrical, or other trade was quashed before it could take flight.
The industry is now paying the price.
On the bright side, America seems to have learned its lesson. With investments from industry, the influx of technology into the traditional occupations, and a growing realization that the trades offer good pay, job satisfaction, and work/life balance, career and technical education, shop class is coming back, better than ever. Rebranded as a career and technical education, today’s version of shop class is much more than an hour a day between lunch and algebra. When implemented correctly, technical education is preparing students for a life beyond high school, where they can develop their knowledge and perfect their skills while supporting themselves, earning college credit, and preparing their journey along a rewarding career path. In many programs across the country, students divide their week between school and working for an employer affiliated with the program. For example, CareerWise Colorado offers a three-year program where Juniors attend classes three days a week and work 6- to 8-hour days twice a week. Seniors go to school for two days and work three days. After graduation, participants may be hired full time or work part-time while attending college or trade school.
Other jurisdictions can learn from Colorado’s example by expanding on-the-job training opportunities while students are still in school and lead to jobs after graduation. The best programs will recruit employers not only to hire participants but to take an active role in designing the curriculum so students’ schoolwork conforms to the skills and duties they will perform at work.
Teaching relevant skills and giving young people the opportunity to use them while they are still in schools will go a long way toward easing the skilled worker shortage many industries are facing.