young man learning trade
Developing Trade School Pathways for Students Is Essential

December 14, 2022

By Kurt Rohrs |

Not all students in our schools are destined for college, but this does not mean that they are lesser in their social standing. Every student is different, and each one deserves the opportunity to explore alternative pathways with equal standing in their career development.

Take trade craftsmen, for example. These people work with their hands to create the things that stand all around us, and their respected professions have long histories of easily identifiable accomplishments—like the buildings we live in and the roads we drive on.

But to acquire these skills, students need trade school education, which often involves apprenticeship programs typically offered by trade union associations and sponsored by the business contractors that need these skilled employees. They usually start at age 18 and require a high school diploma or GED along with a willingness to work. Most of the time, the training is free to the student, except perhaps to purchase tools, and can involve a job placement during the apprenticeship so the student “earns while they learn.”

Here’s one example from North America’s Building Trades Unions:

“North America’s Building Trades Unions’ (NABTU) world-class registered apprenticeship programs train workers to become highly-skilled, six-figure earning construction workers through a debt-free, technologically-advanced education. These earn-as-you-learn programs pay family-sustaining wages and provide health care coverage and retirement benefits from day one.”

At the end of the apprenticeship program, which is usually three to four years in length, the student can be certified as a journeyman and be free to apply for employment in the general workforce or even start his or her own business.

Why Do I Have to Go to School?

Inevitably, just about every student wants to know why they have to go to school, but how do you explain to them the importance of learning the things that schools are required to teach?

Perhaps one way is to start presenting various career pathways to students as early as fifth and sixth grade, and then develop their interest in these pathways through middle school. This would prepare them to specialize their education in high school and help them to understand that they need to learn basic education skills in reading and math so they can progress to the more practical applications of developing a career pathway.

What Is My Exit Strategy?

Presenting career pathways to students earlier in their education is an important first step, but it’s not enough. It is critical to prepare students for the next step in their lives once they graduate. Unfortunately, many of them have no idea what they will do after high school, and that demonstrates a disappointing failure of the school system.

I often hear from trade union recruiters that they cannot get any serious attention from guidance counselors and that they do not get much opportunity to talk to students in the way that college recruiters often do. The education system appears to favor college enrollment at the exclusion of other viable alternatives. This does a disservice to our students and to the community which needs more skilled workers.

A working wage through school with no debt, job placement after completion, and in-demand skills are very attractive features that should appeal to students trying to decide their future after they graduate from high school. Schools and career counselors should take these trade career pathways more seriously and include them as options they promote.

How Do We Do This?

One way we can begin to implement this is by looking at what is working well in other areas. The NABTU has already developed a curriculum in use by several high schools around the country. It introduces students to the apprenticeships and career opportunities available in the building trades. They call it “The Other Four-Year Degree.”

In addition, we should start taking an honest look at our communities and the skills that are needed to make it function effectively. Below is one arbitrary list of skills, but there are plenty more.

  • The “Big Three” – professions where we often heat about critical shortages: teachers, police, and nurses
  • Trade Craftsmen – electricians, plumbers, pipefitters, HVAC, steelworkers, brick and tile workers, plasterers, boilermakers, and more
  • Health Care – doctors, nurses, medical technicians, therapists, medical assistants, medical records
  • Engineering and Technology – hardware and software research and development, design, manufacturing
  • Business (Public and Private) – general management, legal and accounting, human resources, sales and marketing, project management, entrepreneurs

Who Provides the Training?

One of the primary objectives of public education should be to fulfill the needs of the community. Below is a list of the educational organizations that can address that objective. But the key is they need to work together cooperatively and seamlessly to be effective and show value for the funding that is invested in them.

  • K-12 Schools (District, Charter, Private) – general education, career pathway development, and introduction to job skills training
  • Trade Schools (West-MEC and EVIT) – trade union apprenticeships
  • Community Colleges – technical certificates, professional degree programs
  • Universities – research and development, professional degrees
  • Military – probably the largest and most sophisticated job skills training organization available
  • Local Businesses – job specific skills

Why Should We Spend So Much on Education?

In Arizona, we spend more than half of the state budget on education. There should be a very clear and convincing reason to justify this massive expenditure. If this funding is regarded as an investment, where is the demonstrable economic benefit that shows a return on that investment?

The practical answer to both questions may lie in the concept of economic development at both the personal and community level.

The student attends school so they can develop into a productive adult capable of supporting themselves through employment.

The community benefits by having skilled employees available to move forward on growing business enterprises that provide goods and services to the community.

That’s why we should focus on providing all viable career opportunities for our students, By doing so, we can make this investment pay off for their futures—and for ours.

Kurt Rohrs is a Chandler resident and incoming member of the Chandler Unified School District Governing Board.

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