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From the President-Elect: Work-Based Learning Works

By Karen G. Smith | February 2018

It is always interesting how history repeats itself. I grew up in an era when you either chose a college preparatory program or you went to vocational school as a high school student. Vocational training in the ‘70s supplied a highly trained workforce and today most jobs require additional education beyond high school. Many of the jobs we are currently trying to fill in 2017 and beyond are technical in nature (not my Dad’s tool and die shop), but do not require a four-year college degree.

In the early 1980s the shift began from a tightly focused vocational training model to a blend of academic and career-related training what we know today as Career and Technical Education or CTE. The 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” urged U.S. schools to adopt a set of new academic basics that stripped K-12 education of its vocational mission and watered down the academic track in favor of a highly standardized, academic college-prep curriculum for all students. At the same time, it became clear that high school degrees no longer provide enough general or career-specific education to prepare young people for good jobs[i]  The typical amount of credit offered for a CTE program in the current environment varies between 16 and 33 percent. Although this is not insignificant, the knowledge and skills acquired are not sufficient to move into full employment without further education and training.

Fast forward to the current economic climate in the state of Colorado and other areas of the country. The manufacturing, technology, healthcare, financial services and other sectors look to continue growth and replace the aging workforce, but the current high school model does not offer highly qualified trained professionals with the skillset necessary to step into those vacant jobs. We can all agree that work-based learning is a key component to developing our workforce and meeting the current need. However, education and industry do not always agree on what the model should look like.

Colorado, with the encouragement of our government and industry leaders, has supported the development of an apprenticeship program based on the Swiss Vocational and Education and Training (VET) model. Having observed the Swiss system first-hand this past summer, I was amazed at the maturity level and focus of the 15- and 16-year-old students I met who were actively working in their chosen apprenticeships. The feedback from the students and the industry employers support the premise that having student apprentices receive real-world experience – including development of generic and soft skills – is paramount. Allowing industry partners to train the student employees according to the individual company success model offers an opportunity for the industry to grow their own workforce.

The Swiss education system is highly permeable with numerous direct and indirect pathways to different educational opportunities. This type of structure allows students from different backgrounds equal access to opportunities in the vocational and academic education arenas. Students can learn how their knowledge, skills and abilities align with what they are interested in career-wise.

The cost of higher education has increased dramatically since 1980. Students need the option to complete an apprenticeship and be able to enter the labor market and earn a living wage with a high school diploma. For many years, we have focused on which classes appear on a student’s transcript and how those classes will help or hinder their “college career.” A college career alone does not offer a student guaranteed employment and a fair wage. The time has come to focus on developing the skills, knowledge and interests of each student that will help them appreciate the value of an apprenticeship in exploring postsecondary readiness and creating the life they wish to have.

Karen G. Smith is CSCA president-elect, 2018-2019.
[i] Carnevale A, Fasules M, & Hanson A; ‘Career ready’ out of high school? Why the nation needs to let go of this myth. The Conversation, January 1, 2018.