The Value of Teaching the Trades in School

Back in our day, not only did we walk 10 miles uphill – both ways – to school through snowstorms, we had something called “shop class.” While we learned the 3 Rs, we also developed hands-on, job-ready skills, such as woodworking, carpentry, metalworking, welding, and mechanics. Ok, we’re not that old, and you may still have some trades-oriented classes at school. But opportunities to learn about, and practice, the skilled trades are fewer and farther between than they were for our parents and grandparents.

Why is shop class disappearing from schools? And why is it critical that you have the chance to explore them?

Let’s Talk Shop

Up until the 1950s, everyone took shop class – or career and technical education (CTE) courses. But then, the idea of “tracking” caught on. Students would follow different tracks according to their ability (or their perceived ability). So, a college-bound student would take advanced writing, math, history, and science classes. A student on a non-college track took vocational training with basic academic courses.

Veering Off Track

Anyone see a problem here? Well, there are several. Tracking was often done by socio-economic status and race – not aptitude or even interest. This gave the vocational track an undeserved stigma: it was remedial. It was second choice. If you were “smart,” you were going to college. If not… you took shop class.

The emphasis shifted to preparing students for college – and that’s where it’s stayed for decades. Secondary schools piled on the course requirements for core academic areas (math, science, social, studies, foreign language, etc.) – giving students little time in their day to pursue vocational opportunities. At the same time, funding for career and technical education significantly decreased. The message that students needed a four-year degree to succeed was repeated, and repeated, and repeated… until it became an accepted truth.

Are you getting the “college for all” message? You’re not alone but remember college is not the pathway to success. It is one route – and it may or may not be the best route for you at this point in your life. The point is not to push you in one direction or the other – but to make sure you know that there is more than one way to a great career.

Academics and Vocational Training Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Gary Bernstein, who teaches career and technical education at Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morristown, New Jersey, says, “It’s literally the most important class outside of the core classes because it’s the only subject where kids can use knowledge and skills from all their classes.” He adds, “There is a serious shortage of people who ‘know how to do things’ in our country.”

Mr. Bernstein is 100% correct: you can apply all the knowledge and insight from other classes to vocational courses – and vice versa. Logic, analysis, critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaborative and independent working all apply. Shop class doesn’t have to be “other.” It doesn’t have to be on its own track; it can act as a perfect link between learning and application across all of your studies.

Here’s what shop class – or career and technical education – can give you:

  • Hands-on training that is directly applicable to careers upon graduation
  • Work-related and internship-style experiences
  • Training in the “soft skills” necessary in the workforce (e.g. teamwork, adaptability, problem solving, conflict resolution, leadership, communication, etc.)
  • Motivation to attend school more frequently and be more engaged by integrating academic skills with real-world context (If you’re a “When are we really going to use this?” type of student… well, you’ll get your answer!)
  • The ability to improve academic skills

Being “pro-vocational training” doesn’t mean being “anti-college.” Not by any stretch of the imagination. It’s more about giving you access to opportunities and tools to explore different pathways and start to make informed decisions about where you want to go.

We also cannot forget the critical labor shortage facing the skilled trades industry. Without engaging and training the next generation, millions of jobs will continue to go unfilled. For businesses, this means scrambling to find sufficient staff, turning down jobs, project delays, and cost overruns.

And for you? It means that if you hone these skills, you’re going to be a sought-after worker with more ability to be choosy about your job!

Getting Back on Track?

We need a smarter approach to workforce development. And that means thinking about options other than four-year colleges. It means talking about – and talking up – the trades.

Fortunately, we’re seeing the beginnings of a resurgence in career and technical education. Many states have implemented laws or policies granting increased funding for vocational programs: Montana, for example, doubled down on spending for secondary CTE, while Nevada tripled it.

Indiana is another state striving for a balance. Molly Deuberry of the Indiana Department of Education, says the state has “tended to shift one way and say, ‘everyone needs a four year degree’ and then we shift the other way and say ‘we just need technical certifications.’ Really, the truth is in the middle, we need a great mix of all of those things.”

Under a state law that requires the Board of Education to “develop new pathways to high school completion,” more students are able to access and benefit from vocational training.

Are you one of these students? Take advantage; you can be a leader in the next generation of skilled tradespeople, in your community, and the world at large. There is literally no limit to what you can accomplish.

We Need More

While these are great steps, more needs to be done to introduce students to the skilled trades and to potential career paths. This is why Hub & Spoke exists. We partner with local schools, colleges, and educational programs for adults in order to cultivate the next generation of skilled trade workers. They benefit from hands-on experimenting, as well as a curriculum that includes project-based learning and internships with industry related companies through Hub & Spoke.

Founder David Decker says, “The Hub is the center of all activity and connection. The Spokes represent the conduits of help and support necessary to advance and elevate people and our industry.”

We are not waiting for change: we are making it right here at Hub & Spoke. When the creators, innovators, makers, doers, and builders of the world work together, there is no challenge we cannot overcome. Get involved with Hub & Spoke – and help us build stronger careers, companies, and communities.


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