It’s no secret that there’s a shortage of jobs for people who make up the blue-collar working class. This group of people, who used to be the backbone of the American economy, have been somewhat left behind by industrialization. A lot of people who were only trained for jobs in factories can’t operate the modern technology used in manufacturing. Young people whose parents and grandparents felt comfortable working in factories now face the difficult decision of whether or not to go to college, which would be deeply unfamiliar to them, or risk unemployment if they don’t have any schooling beyond the secondary level.
Some propose, as a solution to this, to significantly broaden vocational training. The thinking is that people who want to work in manufacturing, in the blue-collar sector of the economy, will have more ways to show themselves qualified for work. There is a prevailing stigma against working in a factory. It is often taken to be an indicator that the factory worker did not have the right skills to get into college, or that they aren’t motivated enough to succeed in the middle-class jobs that now dominate the American economy. Vocational training, it is argued, will help break that stigma. It is argued that vocational training is beneficial both to the students who would like a job in manufacturing, because it prepares them more than just a high school degree would, as well as being beneficial to employers, who would have more valuable workers at their disposal.
This argument is advanced in a Washington Post editorial on the blog Grade Point. This line of thought advances the idea that many students would be happy not going to a four-year institution if they knew that they would still have a job. Vocational schools are pitched as a way to provide stability and credibility for those students who genuinely would not succeed in college.
All of that being said, I remain deeply suspicious of vocational training. I don’t believe that there are any students who are necessarily incompatible four year institutions. Many of the students who would go to vocational schools are those students who feel tremendous pressure in academics; low-income students, racial minorities, people with disabilities, and other marginalized individuals in our society. I think that we’re playing a very dangerous game by advancing the narrative that students like these are not able to succeed in college.
Let’s not be coy about what we’re talking about: people who advocate vocational schools want there to be one system of higher education for the privileged and another for the underprivileged. When was the last time you heard anyone say that a rich, white, able-bodied person should consider vocational school?
I understand why some reformers are attracted to the idea of more vocational training for students. As the number of young people going to college increases, higher education is certainly going to have to expand somehow. But I think that a two-tiered system is the wrong way to go. Instead, we should make sure that we have genuine equal opportunity to go to college for every kid. If there are still people who would rather be mechanics, that’s fine, but don’t count these kids out before you give them a chance.