Vocational Education in the 21st Century

Posted on December 17, 2012
by FeliciaOctocog

The Salem News ran an edited version of this article. Here is the full length version.

Vocational Education isn’t what it used to be.  If you graduated high school prior to 1990, your perceptions of, and experience with, vocational education is undoubtedly out of date.  It is no longer just an  alternative pathway for kids who are not on a college track nor is it an academic track that prepares students for entry levels jobs that only require a high school education or where academic expectations are low and post-secondary education is not an option.

Allow us to introduce you to Career-Technical Education (CTE), an academically rigorous, course of study subject to Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks, and designed to prepare students for technical careers or college-level classes both technical and academic .  CTE provides hands-on applied learning experiences that builds academic knowledge, problem solving skills, general employment skills and specific career skills that lead to applicable industry credentialing.

CTE is available to Salem students at the North Shore Regional Vocation High School (NSVHS) in Middleton and at Salem High School where there are three vocational (Chapter 74) programs (Auto Tech, Electrical and Culinary Arts) and many technology education elective courses (e.g. carpentry, metal working, CAD, and child development).  Students sign up for these courses for a variety of reasons:

  • An opportunity for hands-on, practical experience in a field that may lead to a career, post-secondary education or just useful life skills.
  • An opportunity to explore different career paths before entering post-secondary education or the workforce.
  • An opportunity to learn a skill or trade that will provide them with a job while pursuing post-secondary education

As city budgets tighten and as we see the expansion plans for NSVHS and the success of its students, we might be tempted to question the need for CTE at Salem High School where there is an overlap in programs.   In Salem, there are approximately 100 students per year who apply to NSVHS, and 60 don’t get accepted, leaving more than 200 students at the high school who want vocational education options.  There are several others who arrive at SHS after freshman year (transfers or immigrants) who won’t have a chance to apply.

Nationwide 50% of our students do not go on to any post-secondary education (38% here in Essex County, MA).  Many  students see no clear connection between their schoolwork and tangible opportunities in the labor market and as a result, find learning boring and irrelevant. School learning is indeed abstract, theoretical, and discipline-based while work is concrete, specific to the task, organized by projects and problems and is cross-disciplinary. Work-based learning is a credible, proven alternative education pathway for many youth who are disengaged from learning, and at risk for dropping out.

Nick Arno, is a 2009 graduate of NSVHS, arriving there after 8th grade at Collins Middle School.  “I was always interested in working with my hands and attending vocational school.   Being able to link academic subjects, particularly math and science, with my career interest, definitely helped me stay engaged in school. “ Nick left NSVHS at the height of the recession and got a job at Cranney Home Services as an electrician, where he is still employed.

The Salem High School Vocational Department, run by Richard McLaughlan (former principal of NSVHS), is a Massachusetts Chapter 74 Certified Department. Four year students acquire entry level skills preparing them to enter the labor market or enabling them to receive post–secondary college credit in their vocational area.  Completers receive a Massachusetts Vocational Certificate in addition to their high school diploma enabling a student to receive vocational credit toward an apprenticeship or advanced standing in the military.

SHS receives $4,000 per enrolled student in Chapter 70 funds from the Commonwealth as well as $64,000 in Perkins IV funding.  141 students are enrolled in these programs and another 140 students participate through the exploratory programs.  While it is difficult to track all the money in and out of these programs, the math seems to indicate that most of the costs are being covered.  If SHS were to add two additional vocational programs to boost enrollment, then the city would also receive $4,000 for each of the exploratory students which will increase the funding by $560,000.  Programs being considered for Chapter 74 are Facilities Management, Early Child Development and Medical Assisting.

Of the 33 students who graduated in 2010 from the Chapter 74 programs, 12 (36%) went to post secondary education, 10 (30%) went to work in the trade they studied, and 11 either went to work in an unrelated field or the data was not available.

Ben Kapnis, a senior at Salem High School, is completing the electrical vocational program and is planning on going to college to study to be an electrical engineer.  “I chose to go to Salem High School because I knew I wanted to go to college but didn’t know what I wanted to do. I chose the electrical program because it was hands-on and taught me real life skills. Every day we are doing real projects like building an alarm or light system and I am never bored. It was because of this program that I decided to try electrical engineering.”

We are living in a rapidly changing world, one in which middle skills jobs that do not require a 4 year college education are growing in importance.  Technology is infiltrating not only the STEM and healthcare fields but also the trades requiring significantly more time in school and training.  Just receiving a traditional high school degree will not be enough to fill these jobs.

I encourage anyone interested to take a tour of the high school vocational wing.  You will not help coming away inspired.  I left my tour with Rich McLaughlan with a request for adult courses. My mind was whirling with possibilities of making our vocational education school into a business where students provide fee-based services for the community.   I am already thinking about putting in an order for a new coffee table.