A Tale of Two Educations
High youth unemployment has become an elephant in the room no one wants to acknowledge. Despite a gradual (if at times excruciatingly slow) recovery from the financial crisis of 2008, and indeed a few nascent signs of actual growth in areas such as wages and hiring across the economy as a whole, the outlook for young people remains decidedly dismal. Either unemployed or juggling contract work or part-time positions, while simultaneously struggling to pay off massive student loans, the financial future for those who have had the misfortune to come of age in the aftermath of the Great Recession could be described as anything but rosy. This has become almost accepted as a given across the developed world, something we simply accept with a collective shrug of the shoulders as if there is nothing to be done about it but acknowledge it as an unfortunate fact of the New Normal that has been inflicted upon our economies in the near decade that has followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Unfortunately, an in depth examination of the facts reveals this not to be the case.
Look at a number of nations across the globe (Germany and Switzerland being the two foremost examples) and you’ll find youth are prospering. Indeed in the snowy paradise of the Alps it has stood as low as two percent in recent years. How is this possible? Is it merely some fluke? Possibly, but there is one recurring fact that is shared by all these examples….a vocational education system.
The flaws of our education system are quite clear. In short, it long ago ceased to be about equipping young people with the necessary skills for the job market and instead has evolved into a preparatory academy for university. Yes, the basics like reading, writing, and arithmetic are still taught (if rather poorly) but the main focus is on securing the necessary credits to qualify oneself for whatever desired program post-secondary study one’s heart is set upon. When that education milestone is finally achieved, quite often with tens of thousands of dollars of student debt having been incurred in the process, our young grads of today are confronted with the horrible realization that (unless they were fortunate enough to have set their sights upon one of the few degrees such as medicine or engineering that actually have a practical application to them) they have dedicated their entire education career thus far to the attainment of a glossy piece of paper proclaiming them a master in the field of Art History or Poetry or Women’s Studies that is utterly useless in securing them meaningful employment of any kind. Need further proof that this system of education no
longer works? Look no further than the increasingly available statistics showing that even as unemployment rates steadily refuse to inch downwards there is a steady increase in vacancies for
skilled positions with numerous companies, unable to find qualified applicants in the current job market and unwilling to provide the necessary training themselves (job training having been one of the innumerable areas cut heavily by companies in the fallout of the financial crisis as they struggle to boost savings as a cushion against economic headwinds).
Vocational education takes a completely different approach. From a very young age, the focus for students is on being given the proper qualifications within their chosen field of work. This is achieved by a combination of theoretical classroom work and hands on job training in the real world (which students will often receive real pay for doing), and it is quite common for students to graduate with a job offer already in hand. Furthermore, there is a concerted effort to keep the number of students in each program within the confines of actual economic reality. When a specific program requires university study, it is incorporated into the student’s education, but total numbers of entrants are often capped. There is also a genuine attempt to ensure that the number of graduates trained to be plumbers, or agricultural mechanics, or school teachers is matched to what the expected demand for new employees will be in those fields. Students acquire actual skills and graduate with a realistic chance of acquiring a job. The contrast to our current schooling system here in North America is like night and day.
The great strengths of vocational education, unfortunately, are the very reasons why there has been such resistant to its introduction. For starters, such a blatant focus employability and attaining marketable skills offend the sensibilities of our dear friends on the left (who are particularly dominant in the fields of education). Despite the fact that either the acquisition or at least distribution of money forms the foundation of all the various offshoots of liberalism that have come to dominate the politics of modernity, members from the progressive wing find it unfashionable to openly admit this. Education is about “broadening minds” and “expanding horizons” not anything as grubby as teaching somehow how to be an electrician. In addition to being highly unpractical (broadening your mind is all very well but it doesn’t put food on the table), this is always patently false. From the earliest days of history, education has always about providing students with the skills to succeed at some chosen career. The ancient Greeks taught philosophy to noble youth in the hope it would make them better rulers. The Church taught its initiates reading and writing so their future priests would be able to read the Bible and replicate its words on to new pages to better spread God’s message. The first universities taught law and medicine to produce doctors and lawyers. Even as skills such as creativity and critical thinking became increasingly valued, and thus their promotion became incorporated into educational curriculum, the focus was always on their teaching as skills, not some mythical end in itself.
The other great obstacle is more basic. Given that in a vocational education system there will be a limited number of spots for aspiring doctors and lawyers and bankers and such, these will naturally go to those students who have shown the most aptitude for them. No parent wants to be told that their little Timmy or special Susan just doesn’t have the skill or inclination for a white collar profession and is really better suited to be a sewage maintenance worker or a pest exterminator. Such blatant honesty contradicts the message that pop culture, the media, and our so-called elites have spouted off endlessly for the past few decades; that we are all special in our own unique way and how the upper-middle class existence of Mr. Cleaver and his at times erring son Beaver is the minimum we are all entitled to expect out of life. That is the mythic “American Dream” that we have all been told is our birthright. The introduction of vocational education would challenge this basic premise. It would require us to admit that, on a certain level, we actually are not all equal and some of us are actually more skilled and inclined towards certain roles than others (which is true now anyway, but hidden behind a mirage of denial).
The unfortunate reality we must face is that the unprecedented prosperity and mobility of the last half century was an outlier. It was a reaction to a once in a lifetime (if not a once in history) collusion of circumstances that is unlikely to be repeated again. The aspirations of those times have ended as well. We should focus instead on what is within our ability to offer: the promise of a job for all who are willing to work and the promise of self-sufficiency and security within the means that are available to us. Doing so will require changes to both our mindset and our institutions. Vocational education would be an excellent place to start.