kitchen table math, the sequel: vocational schools

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

vocational schools

Opinion Journal - Extra What's Wrong With Vocational School? by Charles Murray

Murray's article was rather lame. It read like an exam paper, hastily done at the the night before it was due.

Having said that, he does hit on one important point. There should be other options for people besides University. College is a ridiculously poor at training people for most jobs in the real world. As Murray points out, college has become little more than a litmus test for employers. My brother who is an electrical engineer for Boeing even admits that he maybe uses 10% of what he learned in college, and he has a Masters degree.

For many many jobs, specific technical schools would probably be a much more cost effective and efficient way to train new employees. Witness the U.S.A.F., that manages to train 18 -21 year old kids to work on multi-million dollar aircraft, with only a few months of formal schooling, and a year of on the job training. In my field, nondestructive inspection, 22 year olds are able to leave the Air Force after four years and get a job in the civilian sector earning $40,000 a year.

Having lived in Europe for 12 years, I think that many European countries take a much more pragmatic approach to post secondary education. For example, the German model has industries working in partnership with government to create Berufsschule's (vocational schools) that provide government certified certificates in over 400 different careers.

Moving to a system like this, or similar, would serve several purposes. Employers would get employee's with specific job knowledge, our college graduation rate should improve, and students without the desire to sit through four year's of irrelevant classes would be able to quickly move into the workforce.

Murray though doesn't do the idea much justice. It's as if he adopted it to make up for the political incorrectness of his research into the IQ gap. Of course, because of Murray's perceived political leanings, his suggestions will be ignored... but good ideas being ignored has become the norm in education policy these days, so why should this idea be any different.

(Cross posted at parentalcation)

Hat Tip: Joanne Jacobs

8 comments:

Catherine Johnson said...

I haven't read your post yet - just the first line - but I had the exact same reaction to Murray's piece.

He got just about everything wrong.

SteveH said...

The vocational issue is not that simple. We have a "technical" school in our state that is very highly regarded. In fact, they even offer college degrees. I haven't done a study, but I suspect that most technical schools now offer degree options, perhaps in conjunction with local colleges.

Is a degree required? It depends on supply and demand. Some employers might use a degree requirement as a quick way to reduce the number of applicants. Others might feel its an indication of the drive and persistence of the applicant. In spite of the "fun" of college or the cachet of a degree, I don't think many would go to the expense and hard work unless it paid off.

In a drive along Route 128 outside of Boston, it's amazing to count the exit signs to all of the colleges whose names are only vaguely familiar. College is a booming business and supply will meet demand.

The problem is that the supply is not coming up to meet traditional college standards. Colleges are lowering their expectations, and it really pays off. Even back when I taught at a private college (that wanted to, and did, expand to university status), the average student SAT scores were getting lower. The goal of the college was to expand to become a university. To expand, you need students and there were plenty of waiting students, if you lowered your entrance standards.

Many large employers know the difference between colleges. I was on a recruiting team once and we only went to highly-rated colleges. For most people, however, the degree is just a piece of paper that unlocks a door. This has always been a problem. I remember my father complaining about not finishing his degree after coming back from WWII. People were promoted around him because he didn't have the degree.

However, my brother got into the programming field with no background or degree in computers. This was 25 years ago when demand was great and supply low. He taught himself how to program and worked his way up job by job to earn lots of money as a contractor. I don't think you can do that nowadays.

What's the problem? When demand exceeds supply, employers use an expensive piece of paper to sort out applicants. Many jobs don't need college degrees. This is not a student problem, it's an employer problem.

SteveH said...

"My brother who is an electrical engineer for Boeing even admits that he maybe uses 10% of what he learned in college, and he has a Masters degree."

Yes, but that 10% is used 90% of the time. It's ridiculous to think that a vocational school can substitute for an electrical engineering degree. All bets are off, however, for many non-technical degrees.


"In my field, nondestructive inspection, 22 year old's are able to leave the Air Force after four years and get a job in the civilian sector earning $40,000 a year."

If, however, demand begins to exceed supply, I would expect to see the college degree requirement start to appear in the job postings. Most people know that a college degree is just a piece of paper for many jobs.


"For example, the German model has industries working in partnership with government to create Berufsschule's (vocational schools) that provide government certified certificates in over 400 different careers."

Yes, but aren't kids tracked into certain paths with not much say in the matter? It makes me think of early tracking by ability in school, and the school gets to decide on ability and the track.


"Employers would get employee's with specific job knowledge, our college graduation rate should improve, and students without the desire to sit through four year's of irrelevant classes would be able to quickly move into the workforce."

Education as an efficient industrial process, all for the benefit of the individual, of course. Maybe the government will shunt students from one path to another so that the demands of industry will be met. It's a scary thought to think of industry and government combining together to do what's "best" for the individual.

Parentalcation said...

steve,

Actually, the 10% is not used 90% of the time. He flat out told me that most of what he does, he learned on the job. He has been on several hiring commitee's and he told me that they more concerned with the ability to learn than what they actually know.

As far as tracking in Germany, the students do have a say on in the matter. Their say is their academic performance. There are mechanisms in the system for students to move up or down between the tracks. One of the things that they do well though is to remove any stigma from being on a technical track as opposed to an "academic" track. Even the students in technical schools learn high levels of math (Algebra and Geometery), learn at least 1 usual 2 second languages, and are provided with a rounded education.

I can understand your aversion to industry and government deciding whats best for the individual, and I would agree. The technical school partnership between industry and schools is just one option among many for students. I am not advocating replacing Universities, just strengthening the current technical school program, removing the stigma, and giving them more respect.

My mother and father both got into programming the exact same way as your brother. My dad got a Masters in Math from Carnegie Mellon and was a High School teacher for many years in New Zealand before he stublemed onto programming in the late 70's. My mom followed him a few years later, and her degree was in Psychology.

SteveH said...

".. just strengthening the current technical school program, removing the stigma, and giving them more respect."

In many cases, the technical schools are doing the job well themselves. Graduates from the one near us are very well regarded. The school offers the distribution courses to get the piece of paper and they train the students to make themselves valuable to an employer. Everyone around here knows that this is much better than a degree from the community college.

Still, students need to know that a degree in electrical technology is not equivalent to a degree in electrical engineering. If an electrical engineer is doing a job that can be done by a technical school graduate with some on-the-job training, then he/she better think a little bit more about their career path.

SteveH said...

"Their say is their academic performance."

As long as schools do their part. This blog is based on the fact that that isn't being done.

Parentalcation said...

"As long as schools do their part. This blog is based on the fact that that isn't being done."

Point taken.

Electrical engineering is a bad example for a career that can be taught at a technical school. I will conceed that electrical engineering (at least digital engineering) is best left to universities.

Tracy said...

"My brother who is an electrical engineer for Boeing even admits that he maybe uses 10% of what he learned in college, and he has a Masters degree."
...
Actually, the 10% is not used 90% of the time. He flat out told me that most of what he does, he learned on the job.

Interestingly, I have an electrical engineering degree, and I'd estimate I'm using about 20% of what I learnt during that degree, but I'm really glad I did the degree.

I'm actually an economist (by my second degree, and by work), and am currently specialising in the electricity sector. The 20% of my engineering degree is the theory and the experience of electricity. (I'm estimating the proportion of courses I took that are relevant to my current work as a proportion of my overall degree). It's a very valuable 20%. It makes sense of the sector. For example, I know that you can't identify an electron as coming from a particular power station so that wipes out a lot of suggested solutions to the problems of paying for capacity.

Of course, most of what I use at work I learnt on the job. This is not surprising. I've now been working more years than I spent at university - if I hadn't learnt more in those years it would have been a very boring and basic job. University's not the end of learning, but it can give you a very good basis for further learning.