April 9, 2012
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60%. That’s the percentage of German high school graduates who choose vocational over academic education.
7.8%. That’s the unemployment rate for German youth. Compare that to Spain, Greece, or America, where almost half of those under the age of 25 are unemployed. 7.8%!
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that there might be a link here. In Germany and several other Northern European countries, choosing a vocational path after high school does not consign one to the ranks of a second class citizen. Rather, it is what the majority of youth do, and it is considered a viable, enterprising post-high school path. It would also appear that this choice has been a good one in terms of employment. NPR’s “Morning Edition” ran a fascinating piece on this topic last week and concluded that the German model may present a compelling answer to the growing skills gap that we see all over our knowledge-based economy.
Here in America, we still have a decidedly dim view of vocational education, based on the perception that lower performing, often minority kids are getting “tracked” into low quality vocational schools at early ages, thus creating a dual class economy of educational winners and losers. In my humble opinion, this holdover view from the 70s and 80s is outdated and just plain wrong. Contrary to popular belief (as reported by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education):
- Vocational education students enter postsecondary education at about the same rate as all high school graduates (Kober and Rentner 2000; Stone 1993)
- Vocational graduates are more likely to be employed and earn more than their non-vocational counterparts, particularly vocational graduates who worked part time during high school (Stone 1993)
Indeed, the knee-jerk negative reaction that so many people have to the words “vocational education” stands at odds with the values many of them actually hold. A 1997 Washington State Workforce Training and Education Board survey (cited by ERIC) revealed that almost 9 of 10 respondents agreed that high schools should provide some kind of career preparation to every student before graduation, 3 of 4 said that career education should start before high school, and 96 percent favored education for every student that provided a strong academic foundation, hands-on learning experience, and an opportunity to practice what he or she has learned in a work-based setting. That data doesn’t square with the negative reaction that people have of voc-ed, does it?
I think we are on the cusp of a massive wave of post-secondary education reform. As writer and management consultant Peter Drucker told me in 1997, “Don’t take four-year college for granted.” Boy, was he right. A combination of changing workforce needs, technical innovation, runaway college costs and flat or declining real wages for most people will challenge the “college-for-all” rhetoric that so many of us now see as the only path to success in America. We are about to observe the creation and acceptance of multiple enterprising pathways into the mainstream economy. It will happen whether we like it or not, and I predict it will serve to increase both opportunity and mobility for millions of youth in this nation.
Note: If you want to go deeper here, my friend Nancy Hoffman provides an insightful lens on this topic in her book, “Schooling in the Workplace” (http://www.hepg.org/hep/book/148).