Revisiting Trade Education

Classroom desks used at Decker College await auction Friday, Feb. 10, 2006 at the site of the former school in Louisville, Ky
Classroom desks used at Decker College await auction Friday, Feb. 10, 2006 at the site of the former school in Louisville, Ky. Decker, a for-profit trade school run by former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, is now closed, mired in bankruptcy proceedings and under FBI investigation in a case that has cast a long shadow over Weld's bid to become the next governor of New York. (AP Photo/Brian Bohannon)

Apprenticeships and trade opportunities should not be an idea of times past: they are essential to the economic recovery of communities across this country. Instead of reinventing the wheel, it would be of merit to reinvigorate our education in the trades as a path to employment.

Millennials across this country still remain unemployed: whether it is someone who took the college track and earned their degree or someone who may have fallen through the cracks of our education system, nearly one quarter of the generation is unemployed or underemployed. While a generation that is more highly educated in comparison to prior generations on the whole, they face unprecedented challenges of being underskilled and underpaid for their work.

We turned our priorities in education to tracking people to college - which in part increased college attendance (as well as debt). While encouraging students to seek higher education is vitally important to our competitiveness and economic growth as communities and as a nation, what happened to those who did not get college tracked? At some point, we cut the programs that would have helped to answer that question in a way that would have ended in positive outcomes on both ends, for those who went to college and those who pursued other career paths. Today, we land in a conversation of "should have, would have, could have." The frustrating thing is, we can.

Prior to a focus on college attendance as the universal beacon for students, an investment was made in trade education: students had opportunities to learn valuable skills essential to every community. Our high schools and community colleges provided a dearth of opportunity to get students engaged in enterprise that perhaps was not traditionally academic, but the hands on experience with a skill was invaluable. These opportunities were further provided to those outside of the purview of our K-12 education system, through accessible and affordable adult education and community college offerings.

Fast forward, through years of budget cuts nationwide to these programs, and we arrive at Walker State Prison.

NPR, the perennial storyteller, recently recounted the story of inmates at Walker State Prison in Georgia who are learning the trade of welding while serving their time. The article cites that by 2020, there will be a shortage of nearly 300,000 welding-related positions by 2020. Inmates have the opportunity to learn a trade and get a certification that has already proven essential to resulting in post-release employment for some.

Rehabilitation and the reduction of recidivism should be a top priority in our corrections system. While it was encouraging to learn of a program that will most assuredly help reduce recidivism, what does it say about America when we do not fund these programs in our schools?

While pages in print and online media have been dedicated to extoling the merits of "learning how to code" as a path to bridge the skills gap, thousands of jobs are currently available in trades that have been too long overlooked in our secondary, higher and adult education infrastructure. It should be a telling sign that there has been a misstep in our nation's education priorities when our prisons are the delivery vehicle for this education. One might argue that investment in these programs at the secondary level would have reduced the likelihood of these students from becoming offenders in the first place.

Communities are ecosystems: there is a need for skills training in a variety of career paths. We need doctors, teachers, welders, administrators, nurses, clerks, shopkeepers and, yes, even us lawyers. Every role is as vital as the next to keeping communities functioning, safe and prosperous.

Skills training for many of these vital roles can start as early as career technical education in high school or can be imparted through continuing education with adult education.

Thriving communities, though, require commitments: they demand that funding and time be put into cultivating programs that equip people, young and old, with the skills to take today's jobs and tomorrows.

As our states, particularly my home state of California, have experienced budget woes over the last decade, programs that were once dedicated to the trades, often known under the umbrella of "career technical education" have been cut: it is only through our local labor unions that opportunities are provided to learn a trade and serve in an apprenticeship that will give students the requisite skills they need to use in employment.

The Department of Labor (DOL) has invested time and resources into apprenticeship programs within the past few years under the Obama Administration. Working with industry leaders, they have led nationwide roundtables to discuss skill needs in diverse industries across the country. Through ApprenticeshipUSA, DOL has made grants available for employers to offer apprenticeships in a variety of career paths. This type of model is worth an examination, especially in economically depressed areas, whether Detroit or San Bernardino, who need a jumpstart with these types of opportunities the most.