At the very least, a cartoon that Gov. Paul LePage recently sent to high school principals throughout the state got people talking about the perceptions people have of career and technical degrees versus those obtained at liberal arts colleges.
The cartoon depicts a college student, who is heading to a four-year college, as thinking his counterpart attending a trade school is a “loser.”
But it would be best for Maine to move on. Rehashing perceived conflicts or competition between vocational education and college preparation classes creates an unnecessary distraction for lawmakers and educators at a time when their clear focus should be promoting career development for all Maine students.
The state needs welders. Maine also needs people who can put their liberal arts degrees to good use in the workforce.
Students who show an interest in such trades as plumbing, welding and carpentry should be encouraged and supported to pursue those career paths, free of value judgments based on outdated stereotypes or classism. The same holds true for those who believe a liberal arts education would best prepare them to meet their life’s goals.
In both cases, educators and those entrusted to guide students’ career choices can inform those decisions by ensuring that they realistically align with Maine’s future employment needs and how one’s level of education affects lifetime earnings potential.
A November 2011 Maine Department of Labor Center for Workforce Research and Information market review of the state’s occupational outlook from 2008 to 2018 projects that 21 of the 40 fastest growing occupations in Maine will be health-related.
“Education and health services is expected to account for more than two-thirds of the net increase in wage and salary jobs,” the report states. Though many older workers will create openings when they retire, “the manufacturing sector is expected to continue to lose jobs.”
In other words, training more welders and machinists won’t increase the demand for welders or reverse a 30-year downward trend in the number of manufacturing jobs in Maine. For that reason, young people interested in manufacturing jobs must be aware of that reality.
It also means that career and technical school curriculums and budgets must evolve to address the economic reality that jobs in such fields as “health care support; business and financial operations; computers and mathematics; life, physical and social science; protective service; and personal services are expected to grow at more than twice the rate for all occupations,” according to the analysis.
Another Maine Department of Labor report indicates that adapting the way Maine schools teach skills related to manufacturing — to reflect technological advancements and integrate more elements of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education into the curriculum — would serve the dual purpose of filling employers’ unmet needs and promoting job stability for employees.
“A successful future for manufacturing will depend, in part, on how well we bridge the divide between the talent employers need and job seekers offer,” according to the Maine Department of Labor Workforce Review released Aug. 31.
Career and technical education programs, offered to high school and community college students, represent key building blocks for that bridge. The data released in August also detail which industries within the manufacturing sector are growing. That information provides educators with direction on where to focus programming.
By emphasizing STEM training, working to align career and technical school schedules with those of partner high schools and encouraging exploration of initiatives such as the Many Flags/One Campus concept, the LePage administration has advocated strongly for the role of career education in Maine.
The next step is to set aside old stereotypes and ensure that all Maine students have access to the important information they need to plan their futures.