If you think a 7.8% unemployment rate in this country is terrible, ask an unemployed 18-year-old how their job search is going.
I’ll tell you, not well. Today, unemployed workers between the ages of 16 and 19 years old have an unemployment rate of more than 23 %, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number falls to 20.9 % among white kids and explodes to 39.3% for African American youths. The dismal fact is that for America’s young adults unemployment is 30 % higher than the national average.
Youth unemployment is worse than at any time since the Great Depression and will remain stubbornly high largely because the young lack the experience and skills of older workers. So if you believe, like I do, that young people represent the future of this country, something better be done to turn these numbers around and pronto.
In my last column I wrote that trade/vocational schools were making a comeback. And as this century picks up speed the demand for skilled workers in a variety of high-paying, blue collar areas is going to accelerate. For many of today’s unemployed youth, vocational training should be a no-brainer. Here’s why.
Vocational training requires less time to complete than a college degree since most post-secondary vocational degrees can be had in two years. Unlike your college-educated brethren, you will have readily employable skills, therefore you can be working and earning money in as little as 24 months while many college grads will still be searching for a job. And you will do so without an enormous educational debt burden that most college grads will be required to pay down over the next 15-20 years.
But the future of vocational training, in my opinion, must do more. It must reach backward into our high school system. That’s where the student’s technical training should start. Let’s face it, not everyone should go to college, nor do they want to. Yet, for the most part, our educational system is geared for that single objective. That is a big mistake.
Some students, maybe a lot of students, won’t be attending college. What about them? Given the high cost of a college education today, many lower and middle income students already know they can’t afford college. So why, they ask, should they even remain in a high school dedicated to preparing them for a college they will never attend?
I say bring back shop classes, Why not allow those students to spend at least half their time in a trade area, alternating a full week of career education and a week of academics?
What about trying a Swiss or Netherland-style vocational education approach? In their systems, students in their last two-years of high school have the option of participating in a structured workplace apprenticeship, making money some of the week while spending the rest of the time in the classroom. That might explain why the Swiss unemployment rate among youths is only 5%.
Consider that in the Massachusetts’s vocational technical high schools the dropout rate is half the rate of those at comprehensive high schools, according to a recent study by Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based research firm.
Why? Students, who are given a choice between preparing for college (the comprehensive approach) or preparing to learn a skill or trade, feel they have more control of the future. In addition, the academic and applied learning environment in mastering a vocation of their choice tends to keep the student’s attention and reinforce their commitment.
Finally, the more a student can apprentice while in the classroom the better. Apprenticeships, in combination with academic education, will improve the transition from schools to careers and higher paying jobs. It can upgrade skills and fine tune them to the needs of our nation’s companies. I say urge our nation’s businesses to return to the apprenticeship and training model. It worked well in this country for decades and works splendidly today in Germany, Austria and other European countries.
President Obama, in his State of the Union address, appears to recognize the need for a change of direction in how we are educating and training our youth for the challenges ahead. I say he is on the right track. What do you say?