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March 25, 2011 11:30 AM The Danger of Vocational Universities

By Daniel Luzer

In terms of college goals, American policymakers must focus not just on educating people, but on educating people for specific jobs of the future, says the National Governors Association. Wow, that’s shortsighted.

According to an article by Catherine Gewertz in Education Week:

Colleges and universities must shape their work with a keen eye toward the demands of the marketplace, a new study from the National Governors Association tells us.
It urges governors to “align higher education with state economic goals” by letting colleges and universities know that they’re expected to contribute to their state’s economic well-being by helping prepare a 21st-century workforce. Governors should create incentives for their state colleges and universities to draw on labor-market research and employers’ input to help them set their priorities and to track their impact on student employment and employer satisfaction.

No, don’t. Just give up on this little hobgoblin. Train college students to think, train them to dream, and train them to work hard. The jobs will follow.

Now College Guide has pointed out before that there’s something very wrong with vocational education in America. One doesn’t need to go to college, but vocational, technical education is so bad in America that it’s actually quite difficult to get into a track for a high-wage, high-skill vocational career.

But the solution to this is to improve vocational schools so that they appropriately train people for existing jobs. The solution is not to turn American universities into vocational centers. Colleges and universities exist for a different purpose. Such institutions, frankly, should ignore jobs.

Especially the jobs “of the future.” The danger of the lure of vocational universities is not necessarily that such a focus will draw resources and attention away from the liberal arts and the hard sciences (disturbing as that is); the trouble is that focusing on the jobs of the future won’t work.

The report says that America’s governors should “encourage—even incentivize—institutions of higher education to seek state and regional employers’ input about how best to ensure that students have the 21st century skills employers need.”

The real problem is that we really have no idea what jobs will exist in the next 20 or 30 years. Just imagine what would have happened if governors in 1980 “worked to ensure that students have the skills employers of 2010 would need.” How would they know? Goals like this are impossible to achieve.

Trying to making an academic education directly about specific job skills is pretty much impossible. Train students to think critically. That’s the talent companies that hire for professional jobs want most anyway. Trying to do anything else at the American college is a waste of time.

Read the NGA report here.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

Comments

  • hullabaloo on March 25, 2011 8:29 PM:

    "The real problem is that we really have no idea what jobs will exist in the next 20 or 30 years. "

    Really? Are these new technologies not going to be developed by engineers, based on research by scientists. Are these companies not going to need accountants, economists, etc? Our classrooms will still have teachers in them, our hospitals will still have doctors and nurses.

    "Such institutions, frankly, should ignore jobs."

    That is small consolation to the legions of unemployed or underemployed graduates in journalism, psychology, and the humanities who did what was fun (or easy) instead of learning skills.

  • Bob on March 26, 2011 9:11 AM:

    I have been working with the business community in a variety of non-profit and government jobs for the past 14 years. As noted, most "state and regional employers" have no special knowledge of the jobs of the future.

    Although smart and often well-intentioned, most are so harried by the demands of the modern workplace that there is little capacity left for long-term strategic thinking.

    Further, my experience is that those with the time to lend their expertise, 97% seem to break down into a few categories: benignly ignorant (see above), pack follower or shamelessly self-serving. Finding that 3% who can truly help guide policy is a very iffy proposition and not one that will work in many communities.

    PS The NGA report is what we get with 29 Republican Governors out of 50.

  • gil on March 26, 2011 1:03 PM:

    while voc ed certainly has a place in the pantheon of our system, we must stress the liberal arts if we are to emerge from the disaster that is our society right now

  • hullabaloo on March 26, 2011 5:31 PM:

    @gil

    Absolutely. It is shocking just how bad many college students are at reading and writing. It is saddening that we have generations of students who consider reading a chore not a pleasure. Or how we have graduates who can do a differential equation perfectly but have no knowledge of our country's history and no awareness of (or desire to learn about) the world around them.

    Of course such people are quite easy to manipulate...

    @Bob

    Bob, what is so bad about my post? I think you and I agree on most things. The governors' idea is foolish and I am not agreeing with them. Daniel Luzer is correct that fad-chasing is stupid, I just think articles like this swing to the over extreme, overlooking that the vast majority of people will still be working in traditional jobs that will be existing next to the "jobs of the future." Societal infrastructure will need to be staffed and maintained. It will be university-educated scientists and engineers working in R&D. Nuts & bolts back-office work will still need doing.

    Businesses have no special knowledge of the jobs of the future. Often it is some of those companies who will be replaced by tomorrow's entrepreneurs.

    We all remember the last big hype about jobs of the future during the dot-com boom and how so many people jumped into programming just in time for the bust. I agree with the author, maybe instead of chasing the latest big thing, our leaders should focus on giving our students the skills to learn. Someone who has strong math skills and can read and write well will have no trouble finding the jobs of the future on their own.

    And it goes without saying, that anything with elephant droppings on it should be viewed suspiciously. Best wishes.

  • Anne-Marie on March 30, 2011 8:34 AM:

    Re: "Focusing on jobs of the future": When I first began college around 1970, we were told that the sure-fire path to success in the workplace of the future was to train as a keypunch operator: the purveyors of "labor-market research and employers� input" were all predicting vast numbers of new job openings for keypunch girls in the next 15-20 years.

    By the end of the decade, the IBM 360/370 were already looking a little tatty; but the women's movement had taken hold, and we were earnestly warned that in order to avoid the "glass ceiling" and other forms of gender discrimination in the workplace, the great secret was, "Never admit you know how to type!"

    Two years later the IBM PC hit the market.