(Photo courtesy of jkaty27 CC by 4.0)

OPINION: Schools need to stop disparaging trades

America needs men and women who can build, who can fix and who can invent.

April 23, 2018

Since the turn of the century, the non-college route has faced increasing contempt from educators who often view the pursuit of a career in the trades as an academic cop-out. What was once a perfectly respectable, even mainstream educational path came to be viewed as a remedial track reserved for unfairly degraded students.

Schools commonly cite their obligation to conventional education as a reason to favor non-trade student prospects—“What’s the harm in preparing kids for college?” they claim. “Won’t all students benefit from a rigorous academic program?”

As it turns out, not really. Students have an incredibly diverse range of skills and learning styles. Not every student excels at English or history or math or science. Some students are mechanical or artistic—they thrive in the workshop, in a studio or on the shop floor rather than in a classroom setting.

Rich Kurdek, a senior who has taken classes in plumbing, carpentry, electricity and even welding, said that trades provide an outlet for kids who tend to be more hands-on learners.

“It’s valuable to someone like me who’s struggled in school because learning with a book and paper is unbearable,” Kurdek said.

Senior Anthony Smith studies automotive technology at West Caldwell Tech and said that the opportunity to escape the confines of the conventional classroom will allow him to attain his Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification, a distinction that verifies Smith’s successful completion of hands-on work and several exams.

“Getting the proper training will benefit me for the rest of my life,” Smith said.

Industrial Arts teacher Lee Oberg agreed that experience in the trades can open doors and expanded his support of providing students with a background in manual skill beyond just those who are looking to pursue a career in the trades.

“We’re in the business of creating well-rounded individuals,” Mr. Oberg said of educators. “Everyone is going to own a home or have to change a tire.”

Fighting Stigmas

Smith, despite his success in the vocational program, said he has not received much support from the school in pursuing that education. “I feel like they sent me and my buddies who’ve graduated from Vo-Tech there because they saw us as kids who weren’t as smart as the rest,” Smith said.

Mr. Oberg said that attitudes at West Essex have definitely become friendlier to students like Smith, but he acknowledges that there have been instances where students were dissuaded from pursuing an industrial art or a trade.

“There was definitely a season during which that did exist,” he said.

Mr. Oberg noted that there is often a stigma attached to non-academic pursuits, especially at schools with the socioeconomic makeup of West Essex.

“If you don’t get your name on that panel of good colleges, you’re supposed to be a failure,” Mr. Oberg said. “The reality is that someone who is really skilled is going to succeed whether they’re a lawyer or a doctor or a tradesperson.”

Smith said that, though their paths may deviate from the standard educational route, students learning a trade are not the “morons” that outdated stereotypes frequently make them out to be.

“You give those ‘morons’ a set of tools instead of a pencil and you’d be surprised at the kind of miracles they can perform,” Smith said. “It’s not a cop-out at all. Our jobs are just as hard as desk jobs.”

Fixing the Trend

Director of Guidance Lisa Hulse said that trades are not being discussed or pushed largely due to increasing focus on STEM education. She noted, however, that students uninterested in the conventional educational track can still pursue the education and career they want.

“I would suggest that students always see their counselors to discuss interests, hopes and aspirations for the future,” Hulse said. “Counselors can provide options and information of opportunities available for all interests.”

The demise of high school vocational education is not just a problem for marginalized students, though—it presents a major economic deficiency at the peak of a rapidly modernizing manufacturing sector. America might indeed possess the material wealth and prestige to lead up-and-coming industries, but it is a willing victim in its alarming practical skills shortage.

“We still need mechanics,” Mr. Oberg said. “We still need trade-trained individuals. We just have to find the right marriage of manual skill and today’s technology.”

Unlike most industrialized countries, the United States has pushed the blue-collar training agenda into an educational corner and virtually assured that anyone who ventures there will be tarred by stigma.

That grossly disparaging approach to what are noble professions breeds intense resentment toward the American education system—and it prevents legions of bright, creative students from contributing to American ingenuity.

The “college-for-everyone” approach to education is misguided and morally disingenuous. It prioritizes the interests of prestige and school rankings—which are largely dependent on college acceptance rates—over a common American good.

America needs men and women who can build, who can fix and who can invent.

So to all the students who want to take shop, who want to go to vocational school, who want to enter the workforce right after high school: Do it. There will be doubters, there will be non-believers and then there will be you proving them wrong. And there will be me—and the American economy—thanking you for it.

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