In the United States, the traditional path is to finish high school first and worry about a career later. Even high school students who are set on a specific career often don’t get any hands-on experience in high school, especially if they’re bound for college.
There’s a growing realization, though, that giving students the chance to try out their chosen careers early on can better prepare them for the future. For some students, this might mean attending a technical school and working toward a certification, but for many it simply means taking advantage of their high schools’ vocational programs to supplement their academic education.
U.S. News recently ran an article encouraging parents and students to ask about what their high schools offer in the way of vocational programs. The article features Patty Thomas, who is the director of career and technical education for Alcoa, Tennessee’s school district.
Thomas points out that everyone can benefit from gaining hands-on career experience during high school. “At absolute minimum, every young person ought to begin exploring careers,” she says.
According to Thomas, this exploration doesn’t have to mean making technical certification the goal of high school. Students can learn about possible careers without sacrificing a traditional academic high school experience: “They may not exit high school with an industry credential that will get them a job, but if they come out of high school without a clue, college is a very expensive career development experience.”
Growing Interest in Vocational Training in the United States
Thomas’s comments on career training in high school reflect an increasingly popular attitude in the United States that more widespread technical training could have several advantages for students.
Traditionally, the United States has lagged far behind European countries when it comes to interest in vocational training. Many countries in Europe offer two alternative paths through secondary school: vocational schools, for those who are preparing to enter the workforce, and college preparatory schools, for those planning to continue on to college.
In the United States, on the other hand, vocational training has had a stigma associated with it. Historically, academic and vocational schools haven’t been seen as two equally valid options for students to choose between. Rather, academic high schools have been considered the “default” path for students, and vocational schools have been given a reputation as an undesirable alternative. As Patricia Hsieh, president of San Diego Miramar College, told Inside Higher Ed in an interview for an article about the stigma vocational schools face: “It is considered a second choice, second-class. We really need to change how people see vocational and technical education.”
That change may be starting to happen, though. More and more, educators and policymakers in the United States are starting to recognize that encouraging all students to stick on a purely academic path may not be in anyone’s best interest. For example, in 2015, Forbes ran an article on Why We Desperately Need to Bring Back Vocational Training in Schools. Meanwhile, an article in The Atlantic asked: Could Vocational Education Be the Answer to Failing High Schools?
Mark Phillips, a professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University, describes how working with Norway’s Ministry of Education changed his perspective on vocational training. He says that it was “eye opening to be in a country where vocational education had high prestige, was well funded, and included students who could have gone to medical school if that had been their preference.”
The potential of technical training is starting to be recognized in the United States. Interest in vocational education is one issue that politicians on both sides of the aisle may share some ground on. During his time in office, Barack Obama was an advocate of career education and increased funding for vocational training programs. More recently, Donald Trump has proposed bringing apprenticeship programs to high schools across the United States.
In other words, vocational education is an area where we might see a push in the future. Already, though, students may have more options for career training than they realize.
Options for Career Training in High School
While vocational schools are one possibility for students wanting to gain technical training, students in more traditional academic high school programs may also have options for career training worth looking into.
For example, some career programs have partnerships with local companies that can include opportunities like job shadowing. Internships are another way to test the waters of a specific career early on.
In the U.S. News article, James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, says that parents and students should pay attention to partnerships when evaluating the quality of vocational programs. Better programs tend to involve collaborations with colleges and local businesses.
Ultimately, says Stone, students don’t have to choose between rigorous academics and early career experience. When it comes to vocational training and readiness for college, “I would argue those kids would be better prepared because they will have learned how to solve problems.” In other words, supplementing academics with vocational experience may be a win-win.
Deciding Whether a Vocational Program Is Right for You
So with all these benefits of career training in high school, does that mean you should go out of your way to sign up for a vocational program? In the end, it depends.
For one thing, it depends on what kind of vocational programs are available at your high school. If you opt for career training, you want to make sure it’s through a quality program that meets your needs.
Importantly, it also depends on your own career goals. At ThinkTank Learning, we always suggest that high school freshmen meet with their guidance counselors to discuss their future goals and career interests. That conversation can give you a better sense of what opportunities are available at your high school and whether they’re a good fit for you.
And of course, we can help you further evaluate your options. We’ll assist you in putting your academic portfolio in perspective and figuring out a plan that leads to your dream school. For more information, get in touch with us for a free consultation!
By Niels V.