America's Vocational Renaissance
America's Vocational Renaissance: Why old is the new New

For a long while most Americans relied on some type of vocational and career training to succeed in the labor market. America's first public junior college was established in 1902, but according to the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, vocational education in its purest sense -- apprenticeships and on-the-job training -- was established long before. Becoming a skilled laborer was the way most people earned an education in a certain field. What we call “higher education” was often reserved for the wealthy. That began to change, and now, as Assistant U.S. Secretary of Labor Jane Oates recently told Bloomberg Businessweek, U.S. students are more interested in earning a degree than in earning a vocational credential.

There is a huge pitfall to this shift. Many college graduates are left with record debt and fewer jobs with which to pay it off. Oates suggests the country could use a vocational renaissance -- and she is not alone.

Like Oates, Mike Rowe -- perhaps best known from the hit TV show "Dirty Jobs" – disagrees with the notion that all young Americans need to go to four-year colleges to succeed. According to The Blaze, Rowe recently told The Glenn Beck Program that the country has made a habit of "lending money we don't have, to kids who will never be able to pay it back, for jobs that no longer exist." Skilled trades are in demand, he said, and companies are having a difficult time finding trained workers. By investing in career training instead of a four-year degree, Rowe suggests, students can enter the workforce faster and with less debt. He believes this so thoroughly that he launched the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, which promotes the benefits of skilled trades and awards scholarships to young men and women with the desire and aptitude to pursue them. Its motto is S.W.E.A.T, or Skill & Work Ethic Aren't Taboo.

Finding our roots: Reinvesting in career education

Advocacy for career and vocational training has picked up steam. TriCities reports that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam recently announced that his state would extend an $843,000 grant to Northeast State Community College. Haslam said the state's economy was becoming increasingly manufacturing-driven and the funds would help buy the equipment necessary to train future workers in those industries.

Dawn Bravo, president of the Elgin campus of the Chicago-based Computer Systems Institute recently told The Chicago Tribune young people in her region are increasingly seeking out "affordable, fast-track career training in industries with substantial job growth."

New Jersey has recently invested in career education, too. According to, the Gloucester County College is expanding its campus, and starting a new program designed to educate young adults with special needs, giving them a chance to receive vocational training.

To market: A case study in vocational education

As stated above, Tennessee's Governor Bill Haslem is giving a grant to Northeast State Community College, so that it can "be used for specific programs where industry is telling us we need more graduates." Haslam's belief that students benefit when education is tied closely to market demand is based on a German system where, as Bloomberg Businessweek reports, vocational and career training are not just championed, but government sponsored. The country's Dual Vocational Training System allows students who have completed their mandatory years of training to apply to a private company for a two or three year training contract. If accepted, the government supplements students' on-the-job training with more general education in their chosen fields via publically funded schools. Trainees split their time between the classroom and the workplace. By linking this training to existing employment contracts, Germany believes schools will better meet market need and students will be assured employment. It may bea system worth emulating: Germany has the lowest jobless rate among young people of any industrialized nation in the world.

Vocational training, Google style

Whether inspired by Germany or the Oates and Rowes of the world, it seems clear community colleges are re-investing in vocational training. They are not the only institutions to do so: corporations are beginning to get in on the act, too. According to The New York Times Google's YouTube and Red Bull's music label -- The Red Bull Music Academy -- have both launched intense, accelerated courses. Dale J. Stephens, who created the career training start-up UnCollege after dropping out of college himself, told the Times that these educational programs are unique because they are market-funded, and are therefore ensured market relevance.

Food for thought

All of this is not to say that four-year degrees are universally overrated or unnecessary. According to The Blaze, Rowe made a point to clarify that college is not the enemy; debt is. Vocational training offers students who cannot afford four-year degrees -- or who are simply uninterested in earning them -- an important alternative. Time will tell if he is right.

"Vocational Training From a Label Near You," The New York Times, September 8, 2013, Alex Hawgood,
"Would German-Style Apprenticeships Work in the U.S.?" Bloomberg Businessweek, July 19, 2012, Michael Dolgow,
"Mike Rowe On How Many Are Following The 'Worst Advice In The History Of The World," The Blaze, October 23,2013, Erica Ritz,
"About Us," The mikeroweWORKS Foundation,
"Northeast State quickly becoming leader in workforce training," TriCities, October 22, 2013, James Shea,
"Gov. Christie breaks ground on new Gloucester County College building for special needs students,", October 21, 2013, Rebecca Forand,
"Todd LaSota Joins CSI's Elgin Campus as Director of Admissions," Chicago Tribute, October 23, 2013, sjimenez2,,0,1944814.story