Volume VIII, #3
By now, most Americans are used to President Trump using words that, if not inappropriate, are quite wrong. It’s clear he’s a far cry from his idol, the Great Communicator, what with speeches that are varyingly at a 4th grade vocabulary level or read off the teleprompter at a protracted pace.
So when the Id of forgotten America says he wants community colleges to be more “vocational” he's using the wrong word. But he does have a point.
Vocational is the wrong word because most people interpret vocational education as training for a building or industrial trade involving working with one’s hands. And while these jobs are critical and admirable, there are two problems.
First, while President Trump might want millions of displaced workers trained in building trades – perhaps to help build hotels and golf courses, or maybe gaudy monuments to our 45th President – labor economists don’t. While there are shortages in certain trades, none are projected to be among the fastest growing job categories in the next decade; the 21st century economy won't be built on the backs of welders and electricians.
The second reason, of course, is that while policymakers love talk about training welders and electricians – including President Trump, who included a love song to welders in last week’s State of the Union address – talking about “vocational” education as THE alternative to college only serves to reify and deify college in the minds of America’s successful and aspiring families. Few parents who attended college and work in white collar jobs are excited about sending their offspring down an educational path that leads to manual labor. The same is true of parents who haven’t achieved the American Dream, but want it for their children; choosing between a profession and a vocation for their children is no choice at all. All of which serves to put college on an even higher pedestal.
As usual, President Trump’s choice of words undermines his objective. His administration believes we urgently need a multitude of pathways to good jobs, not a single four-year pathway. And if faster + cheaper alternatives to college are essential for Gen Z to avoid the same crises of debt and underemployment that befell their Millennial brethren, it turns out they’re just as important to many older Trump voters.
In her superb 2017 book Janesville, Washington Post staff writer Amy Goldstein documents the aftermath of the 2008 closing of the GM plant in Janesville, WI. The plant had been in town since World War I, and with the network of suppliers and businesses that served GM and its workers, the closing was an economic catastrophe for Paul Ryan’s hometown.
For me, the most stunning scenes involved displaced workers funneled by the local workforce board to Blackhawk Technical College, Janesville’s community college, and the universal expectation that workers requiring retraining had to return to a classroom. Blackhawk does its best to accommodate the flood of newly unemployed adult learners, but it’s not a good fit for most: “As he enters his first class this morning – psychology – Mike is worried. Does he really know how to study? Can he write a research paper? Will he be able to use Word on a computer?” According to Goldstein, “of the laid-off workers who arrived at the college in the fall of 2008… nearly half left without finishing what they’d begun.” The completion rate was lower – approximately one-third – for those who enrolled in associate degree programs.
Although Blackhawk tries “like hell,” it shouldn’t be a surprise that men and women who worked for decades on a GM assembly line aren’t thrilled at the prospect of sitting in a psychology class. It’s hard enough to educate adults in a college environment. Students need to be motivated to return to campus. But Janesville’s displaced workers were more disgruntled than motivated. Most had lost confidence in their economic future and their own capabilities. Then they’re told by the workforce board that the only pathway requires returning to an environment they last experienced as a teenager – an environment that they perceive as infantilizing. It’s a recipe for dropouts.
According to Opportunity@Work, there are at least 10 million American workers who need reskilling right now. Based on exit polls from the 2016 election, most who voted pulled the lever for Donald Trump. So although President Trump says “vocational,” it’s entirely valid to express frustration at the classroom monoculture of our postsecondary system.
All students care about getting good jobs – displaced workers doubly so. (In Janesville, one student drops as soon as his instructor levels with him that there actually aren’t many jobs for graduates of his program.) It’s generally the case that the more you’re in a classroom, the further you are from employers and jobs. The inverse is equally true: the further you are from the classroom, the closer you are to employers.
What kinds of postsecondary programs are far from the traditional classroom? President Trump’s vocational programs, for sure. But also a wide range of faster + cheaper pathways to good digital jobs that run in workplace-like environments. Galvanize programs run in co-working spaces, alongside hundreds of hiring companies. Revature students work business hours and wear business attire. Techtonic Academy students work on real client projects, and begin billing time as early as early as week 5 or 6. While these examples are in software development, we are actively backing similar models across a wide range of industries and job functions – anywhere the skills gap can be remedied through last-mile training.
It’s always easier to sit students in a classroom and talk at them. My mother taught at a community college for over 30 years, and – ask anyone – she loves to talk. But adult learners – particularly displaced workers – are almost always better served in workplace settings. Project-based learning is good. Real projects from real clients who’ll ultimately hire students (or who may have already done so, as with apprenticeship programs) are even better.
I’m not saying there's no role for classrooms; many concepts are best conveyed and mastered in a classroom environment, particularly classrooms set up for active learning. But we’re unlikely to engage those in greatest need of reskilling if classrooms are the sole, or even initial, modality. Of course, the other problem with classrooms is the bureaucratic baggage built up over decades. The forms, financing, offices. Tell one of the Janesville protagonists that he needs to visit the bursar's office, and he’d either roll his eyes or run away screaming. The apparatus surrounding much college-based retraining could not be less conducive to those who need it most.
Employers aren’t going to do the work to establish these workplace settings. Few colleges and universities want to. But higher education has to do the work to create more workplace-like learning environments. Because that’s what millions of displaced workers need today, and what tens of millions more will need tomorrow as technological change accelerates.
The closure of Janesville’s GM plan was such a sudden, singular event that the story could be told in concise form by a newspaper reporter. But gradually, the same story has happened across many parts of America you probably don’t spend much time in. Education can't stop industries and companies from losing their competitive edge and going out of business. But it’s our responsibility to help the people affected. Telling every single one of them that their only pathway runs through a college classroom is unimaginative, irresponsible, and borderline sadistic. It's as though half the country is starving, and our national policy is that they need to sit in a classroom and learn etiquette before we allow them to eat.
So this is what I think President Trump means when he says “vocational.” Then again, maybe he knows better. It could be the case that, in addition to the other social tensions he's stoked for political purposes, he’s just trying to rile up welders and electricians.
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