"When you think of vocational education, you think of wood shop," District Councilmember Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) told The Washington Post in a May 11 article.Bravo for DC putting vocational education back on the agenda. I think these days we tend to put too much of a premium on a college education while looking down on those vocations that Phelps teaches. This lack of respect "non college" education has real world consequences.
"The 21st-century vocational education is what you see at Phelps," he said.
In response to trends favoring college preparatory high schools throughout the 1990's, many city leaders began to push for the reinstatement of trade or career orientated schools.
"Schools like Phelps offer children options they might not otherwise have, every child is not going to college. With the reopening of Phelps and similar schools the children have options of receiving training in skillful areas that will enable them to earn competitive salaries," said Larry Davis, who has been a math educator in the District school system for nearly 20 years.
"There was a time when a lot of people went to high school and learned a trade and worked after they graduated, and that changed," said District resident Nakia Pugh.
Pugh, who plans on sending her son to Phelps for high school, said the school would be a better option her son.
"I want my son to have options, sending him to a school like Phelps will only better position him for college or a job after school because he will be getting a well rounded education that involves experience," she said.
In a previous work life I used to work in the oil and gas industry. At one of the last conferences I attended there was a break out meeting to talk about the challenges that capital projects and turnaround face in the near future. The number one issue was an aging workforce. All of the project managers were worried about the looming retirement of a large percentage of experienced, highly qualified shift managers, welders, pipe fitters, boilermakers, etc. Over the last few years the number of young people entering these professions came no where near the numbers needed to replace the retiring workforce.
After recognizing the problem some of the refineries, chemical plants, contractors and local unions have tried rectifying the problem. In once case they had pooled some money together to offer scholarships to graduating students to help pay for the cost of trade school. When the industry approached one of the local school districts about partnering with them the school district turned them down, basically saying that their expectations for their students were to go to college, not to a trade school.
What's most infuriating about that attitude is the types of jobs that school district felt were beneath their students are exactly the types of jobs you can't outsource away. You can't dig up a refinery and send it to India to have the catalyst changed out of their FCC unit. Its the type of job that is guaranteed to keep a sizable workforce local, helping stabilize the local economy. And while pipe fitting, welding, etc is hard work, it is well compensated work.
Marion Barry complained that the contractors who worked on the National's stadium didn't use enough local labor as agreed to when the contract was bid out. According to the contractors it wasn't for the lack of trying. DC just doesn't have workers who are qualified to do the job.
A college education is a great thing. But its not the only path to a good job. The world needs the likes of plumbers, electricians, bricklayers and HVAC technicians as well.