The New Vo-Tech

By Del Stover

Not long ago, a manufacturer asked for assistance from the Pickens County Career and Technology Center. A factory robot needed to be retooled for a new product, and the company’s technicians were too busy to do the work. Could the high school’s students take on the project?

His kids were up to the task, Principal Leonard Williams said, and the next day, the robot was delivered on a pallet to a school’s workshops. Soon, students were installing a new welding arm and reprogramming the robot, even though the company didn’t have a technician’s manual to help with the work.

“After we finished that, the company said they were going to put the robot on line at the plant, and they’d need maintenance,” Williams says. “So they hired one of our kids for an apprenticeship … and hired another kid from our electronics program.”

That’s a pretty impressive story for a small-town high school in northwestern South Carolina. Not many schools can boast students with such real-world technical skills, nor are there many industries willing to entrust expensive machinery to the care of students. But the vocational program in Pickens County is exceptional, with strong ties to local industry.

But what’s truly notable about this program is that it’s by no means unique. Across the nation, districts are working to reinvent vocational education and occupational training opportunities. Often operating under the banner of career and technical education (CTE), these programs are taking vo-tech into the 21st century, with an increasingly sophisticated and academically rigorous curriculum that’s rooted in providing students with real-world experiences and a serious exploration of career opportunities.

It’s a trend that signals a major shift in thinking from just a decade ago, when the national mantra in education was all about graduating students to be “college ready.” But with economists warning of a paucity of engineers and scientists -- as well as shortages in skilled technicians and industrial craftsmen -- recognition is growing that K-12 must put more emphasis on getting students “career ready” and coordinating closely with industry and postsecondary institutions that will complete students’ training for the workplace.

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