Failing a Generation

When I graduated from high school in the 1990s, I made predictions about my 23 classmates (yes, I went to a very small school), and I tucked those predictions into my senior-year scrapbook. As I prepared for my class reunion last summer, I read over my predictions and realized I was correct on about 90 percent of them. If 17-year-old me could guess what the future would hold for my classmates, I would think our school’s guidance counselor, who also was a teacher and coach and interacted with our class and our other teachers every day, also could glimpse the future. However, looking back at the choices my classmates made after graduation, I don’t think everyone received the individual guidance they deserved. Fifteen out of 24 students went to college, including me; just one classmate went to trade school; and the remaining eight joined the workforce immediately.

While reading this issue’s “Trend Alert” about our nation’s skilled labor shortage—again expertly written by Contributing Editor Robert Nieminen—I couldn’t help but call one of my high-school classmates, Pete. Today, Pete, who chose the college route after graduation, is the third-generation owner of his family’s trucking business in my hometown. I wanted to know if our guidance counselor—or any authority figure at our school—ever spoke to him about trade school rather than college. I always knew college was the path for me; I wanted to be a writer from the time I could spell words, so nobody ever spoke to me about anything but college. But had Pete’s experience been different?

The answer is no. Pete recalls posters for nearby colleges and universities hung throughout the school and visits from college recruiters but none from trade schools. “I never heard I could survey land, build a house, fix a car,” Pete told me during our phone conversation. “And knowing I would likely take over my dad’s business, I should’ve been told to go to school to become a diesel mechanic so I could save money by fixing my own trucks.”

Why wasn’t Pete told about trade school, I wonder? According to Nieminen’s article, one reason may be “cultural conditioning”. Nieminen writes: “The effects of this cultural conditioning are far-reaching and date back to 1965 when the Higher Education Act was signed into law, which strengthened resources for colleges and universities and increased student access to financial aid. In the decades that followed, there’s been a seemingly systemic emphasis on a four-year degree as the only viable path to success and stability.”

Greg Sizemore, vice president of HSE and Workforce Development for the Washington, D.C.-based Associated Builders and Contractors, drives the point even further, “We’ve got a decades-old narrative we have to unwind in America today that says, for whatever reason, ‘Unless you go to college, you’re something less-than, or you’re not employable, or you have less skill.’”

Fortunately, I think we’ve begun to unwind this negative narrative. In recent years, I’ve heard more often that not everyone is suited to college and going to college could still leave a person unemployed or underemployed (while carrying a lot of debt)—pronouncements I don’t EVER remember hearing in the ’90s. It’s up to us to continue to discuss the benefits of vocational and technical school and provide information about the high-growth careers available in the construction industry to today’s young people. It may take a generation to positively affect labor in our industry, just like it took failing an entire generation—my generation—to get us where we are today.

About the Author

Christina A. Koch
Christina A. Koch is editorial director and associate publisher of retrofit.

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