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NEW ORLEANS -- Career and vocational education is en vogue, as Republicans who dominate Washington and most state capitols have been touting job training over the bachelor’s degree. But community college leaders say vocational training is sorely in need of an image makeover.

“It is considered a second choice, second-class,” said Patricia Hsieh, president of San Diego Miramar College. “We really need to change how people see vocational and technical education."

Hsieh was speaking here Monday during the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges. She and other speakers described the stigma career programs still face compared to academic paths that lead to transfer and a bachelor’s degree.

Parents and students tend to prefer that more traditional pathway and are skeptical about the work force value of vocational credentials, said community college leaders. And that skepticism often extends to many people in higher education.

“This kind of misconception is across the board,” Hsieh said, noting that parents from all racial and ethnic groups have doubts about vocational credentials.

In addition, career and technical training has a severe gender imbalance. Most of the decent-paying vocational jobs go to men, who dominate middle-skill (less than a four-year degree required) fields such as information technology, welding and advanced manufacturing. Women, however, are overrepresented in in lower-paying, middle-skill health professions, such as jobs as nursing aides.

Just 36 percent of middle-skill jobs that pay at least $35,000 are held by women, Ariane Hegewisch, program director of employment at earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said during a session here. Women also hold only 29 percent of IT jobs above that pay level, she said, with just 7 percent of those in advanced manufacturing jobs and 3 percent in construction.

While there are substantial gender imbalances in vocational training programs at community colleges, they aren’t typically as large as the gaps among jobholders, said Lynn Shaw, an electrical technology professor at Long Beach City College. For example, at California community colleges, women account for 45 percent of student enrollments in IT programs.

“In the work force, there’s a huge drop-off,” said Shaw, a former miner, steelworker, longshore worker and electrician, who is a visiting faculty fellow at the California community college system chancellor’s office, where she is helping lead the implementation of a work force program. “Somewhere between women showing interest in nontraditional careers and getting into the work force, something happens.”

In recent decades, little progress has been made in breaking the extreme gender segregation in technical jobs, said Hegewisch. And the lack of female role models in these professions contributes to the logjam.

“My sense is that we’ve all kind of given up,” she said. “We’re still very uncomfortable with crossing gender roles.”

Creating Partnerships to Make a Better Pitch

The shortage of women in career and technical jobs is a contributor to the nation’s biggest skills gap challenge. And while enrollments in vocational programs are generally up nationwide, employers face deep shortages of skilled workers.

The tough sell of vocational jobs to students, particularly women, is part of the problem. Many have outdated notions about dirty, physically demanding jobs that don’t pay well. Yet in many cities and states, most of the open jobs are middle-skill ones in career and technical fields, often that come with a good salary.

For example, 30 percent of California’s projected job openings by 2025 will be of the middle-skill variety, Shaw said -- a total of 1.9 million jobs. Many will be technical jobs such electricians, mechanics, radiology technologists or computer support specialists.

“I call it the California community college sweet spot,” Shaw said of training for those jobs. “That’s what we do. That’s what unlocks social mobility.”

It’s a similar story in Arizona’s Pima County, Lee Lambert, chancellor of Pima Community College, said during a different session.

“We’ve got to do a better job of convincing our students that there’s an opportunity here,” he said.

Community colleges themselves deserve some of the blame, according to Lambert and other college leaders, who said administrators and faculty members sometimes look down on vocational training.

“We can’t have this minimal focus on career and technical education,” Lambert said. “It has to be as prominent as our transfer focus.”

Part of the problem is that American higher education largely developed around four-year degrees in the liberal arts. And academic systems have been slow to adjust to the growing prominence of vocational programs. For example, several college leaders here said career and technical programs tend to be overlooked by accreditors in comparison to their focus on general-education requirements.

Seeking Solutions

Sessions here included advice on common-sense solutions to both vocational education’s image and gender imbalance problems.

A key to making progress, speakers said, is for colleges to develop strong, meaningful partnerships with employers. That means working with them on curricular development while encouraging paid internships, and prodding employers to pay for up-to-date training and technology.

“We can’t do career and technical training without our industry partners,” said Jianping Wang, president of Mercer County Community College, in New Jersey.

Wang said she reached out to several local employers for help. It paid off, she said, as companies have sent employees to teach classes, paid for labs and, in one case, even provided drones for students to use in training programs.

“It’s in our mutual interest,” she said of the partnerships.

Colleges also can try to chip away at the gender imbalance through their work with employers, speakers said.

For example, they can push for employers to include women on work force advisory boards or among the experts they send to teach in labs, Lois Joy, a senior research manager at Jobs for the Future, said during a session. Another good approach is to send a cohort of female interns to a partner employer.

“It’s very important for women to see role models in these fields,” Joy said.

The bottom line, experts said, is to show students -- men and women alike -- that career and technical fields include plenty of rewarding, well-paying jobs.

Pima has taken that philosophy seriously, creating a new vice president position for work force development and several new programs aimed at touting vocational education. For example, the district now conducts a national signing day for star student recruits in technical fields.

“These students are just as important as athletes,” said Lambert.

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