Career / Vocational Fields

Trump used wrong word when he talked about 'vocational' education, but he made a valid point (opinion)

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, with speeches that are varyingly at a fourth-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 policy makers -- including Trump, who included a love song to welders in his first State of the Union address last month -- love to talk about training welders and electricians, talking about “vocational” training 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, 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 and cheaper alternatives to college are essential for Generation 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, Wis. 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 House Speaker Paul Ryan’s hometown.

For me, the most stunning scenes involved displaced workers funneled by the local work-force 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 work-force board that the only pathway requires returning to an environment they last experienced as a teenager -- an environment 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 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? 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. (Note: both Galvanize and Revature are University Ventures portfolio companies.) Techtonic Academy students work on real client projects and begin billing time as early as early as week five or six. 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 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.

Ryan Craig is managing director of University Ventures and author of the upcoming A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College.

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What it will take for for-profit colleges to recover (essay)

The election of President Trump and shifts in the regulatory environment due to Republican control of Congress have, of late, been sparking speculation that regionally accredited for-profit higher education institutions would be poised for a comeback. The acquisitions of Kaplan University by Purdue University and of EDMC by the Dream Center add another dimension to this landscape, as the online nonprofit competition grows and the pressure becomes greater for those remaining for-profits to stay viable.

There is an important niche that for-profit institutions can fulfill, and the opportunity is available for these institutions to jump (back) into this niche under potentially relaxed regulatory circumstances. The full spectrum of postsecondary education can benefit from proprietary education returning to its roots while still looking toward the future.

Yet for the enduring for-profit institutions to make a comeback, they will have to reinvent and reinvigorate themselves and recapture public trust damaged by a mix of ill-conceived business models, bad behavior and years of harsh regulatory scrutiny. That’s easier said than done.

To execute, for-profit institutions can’t just articulate a new vision for the future, but will have to live it. That will require a commitment to stronger student outcomes and a commitment to transparency in practices and measurement, regardless of the regulatory landscape. But it also requires that for-profits return to their roots and modernize their commitment to the twin origins of offering programs that lead to jobs and innovating in the ways those programs are delivered.

Connecting Students to Jobs

For-profit institutions have always made it a priority to offer programs that lead to employment, but as the current jobs landscape and new nondegree credentials keep evolving and growing, proprietary institutions must redevelop the programs they offer to stay ahead of the demand curve. It’s time for these institutions to refocus on adult learners who need to skill up for the jobs of the current era, and who may be less employable in the industries of their former occupations. For-profit institutions in the past were very adept at championing quality programs that were practical and vocational in nature, and there is a need for updated practice-oriented programs today that these institutions can help fulfill. Growth and variation in the general education space have not led to success for many for-profits. These institutions would be better served with a solid focus on new and more employable categories of study.

A first step toward this redevelopment is sunsetting existing programs that are no longer meeting current needs and whose enrollments have steadily decreased over the past five years. For-profits must then introduce new fields of study based on future-oriented employability research. There has to be an increased recognition that part of enrollment and academic advising is the guidance of students, especially adult students, into fields that will increase or augment their present-day and future employability.

The proprietary higher education sector may find new opportunities in contracts for government-driven job markets such as defense, public health care, cybersecurity, environmental solutions and infrastructure development. To serve these areas, the institutions will need to bring on new faculty members expert in these areas, as well as in other much-needed disciplines such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Another credible area of growth for proprietary institutions is in offering career-oriented programs targeted to Section 127 of the tax code, which makes employer education benefits tax-exempt so that they aren’t counted as employee income for tax purposes. As the overarching barrier to education for adults is cost, employer-paid tuition can alleviate some of the cost burden for working adults -- particularly given that many do not qualify for federal Pell Grants.

By expanding program offerings for which employers are more likely to pay the learner’s tuition, proprietary institutions can grow their own portfolios while assisting students with means to pay tuition other than through the use of financial aid. This expansion can help for-profit institutions fill market gaps not currently being addressed elsewhere in the postsecondary education ecosystem.

Program Delivery, Systems Innovation and Cultural Shift

For-profit institutions were among the original pioneers in online education and yet seem to have stalled in their position as unique program-delivery innovators. Now is the time to innovate again not just on delivery modalities, but on how to make sure students are successful. Doing that requires a cultural shift.

A good lever for revamping both programmatic approaches and reprioritizing student outcomes would include a next-generation student information system that is integrated with a learning relationship management system. The new system would provide end-to-end student metrics and tracking data that can be used to improve retention, completion and placement outcomes. These systems integrations, including learning assessment and employment outcomes tracking, would ideally integrate with vehicles for alumni tracking.

The idea would be to create a feedback loop so that real-time, continuous data about alumni employment could be fed back into the “engine” and inform both new program development and student advising over time, not just at the moment of enrollment and admission to the institution. Technology and information systems advances would once again bring proprietary institutions into the foreground of innovation in higher education, where a number of such institutions were positioned in the early days of online learning.

And yet, for all of this to happen, fundamental cultural change and change management in the for-profit space will need to occur. The extreme focus on profit has led to the downfall of several proprietary institutions in recent years. Although a number of for-profit institutions have always had, and have maintained, strong reputations for student-centeredness and a dedication to student outcomes, pressure to produce profits has led some institutions astray.

The original primary intent in the for-profit sector of providing programs to support students in their professional development has in some cases given way to extreme vocationalism. In some cases, a rush to enroll large numbers of students without paying sufficient heed to their retention, completion and employability has cast a shadow over the sector more generally. Dissolution of this shadow will require both cultural change within and evolution of perception without. A more favorable policy climate cannot -- and should not -- by itself solve these issues for the sector.

There will have to be a melting of the silos that traditionally exist within the proprietary environment between academic and support departments. Although this may be representative of the higher ed environment more generally, siloing of academic departments from support departments can often be seen more intensely in the proprietary space because of the nature of the for-profit drivers at play.

The newly culturally healthy proprietary institution will encompass stronger institutional research, which will be necessary to elevate student completion and employment outcomes. One approach to achieving stronger, higher-quality outcomes would be through distribution of responsibility for outcomes throughout the institution. Ownership of student outcomes by the various academic and support departments, now newly collaborating through cultural change and reinvention, would provide a stronger base for the institution’s achievement on a holistic scale. The internal networks created would be more powerful than the research and reporting of one institutional research department alone for the entire institution.

For-profit institutions have a distinct history of being on the cutting edge of new delivery models in higher ed, and this history should be retained and continued. The structure of these types of institutions allows them to experiment and take risks not usually found in the public sector. There remains a potent opportunity for the proprietary sector to remain a leader in new delivery models and thoughtful market research.

Transforming public perception and trust will of course be an important factor in this, but through a focus on updated, quality programs and improved metrics, as well as new models for revenue generation and student outcomes tracking, over time the transformation is possible.

Deborah M. Seymour and Michael B. Horn are principal consultants at Entangled Solutions.

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