The month of September contains a day on which we
honor the laborers of our country. The dictionary gives many definitions
for the word labor, but to me Labor Day will always honor the work done by
people like my dad and his relatives. He labored in the coal mines and
many of my relatives labored in the steel mills.
I went back to laboring recently helping my son
electrically wire his new home. My bones and muscles knew that we pulled
over a mile of wire working in 100-degree heat.
While doing the electrical work, I thought to myself
how fortunate I was to have learned some vocational skills with my
academic education. I’ve always felt secure in my ability to feed my
family because of my vocational background. While working the past two
weeks in the same environment where workers were displaying their
vocational skills in such areas as carpentry, plumbing, roofing, masonry,
and air conditioning, I gained a new respect for their contributions to
I also enjoyed talking to and watching the men and
women operating the heavy equipment and trucks. It brought back boyhood
memories of wanting to operate one of those big earthmovers or drive an
18-wheeler down the highway. I’ve operated a small backhoe, but
operating the big “CAT” has eluded me. These workers have a certain
camaraderie that was missing in my academic world of work. They have a
very unique way of sharing stories and technical help.
educational community provides little or no support to this working
segment of our economy. Many vocational programs have been eliminated from
the school curriculum. Educators seem to think the world turns only on the
word “technology.” They distance themselves from the vocational topic
like it was the bubonic plague. In reality, our educational system has
become snobbish. Most educators are best at helping students follow the
paths that they themselves took, getting through the educational maze. Few
educators have experience in the trades or in running their own business;
therefore, they have little interest or the knowledge needed to assist
students preparing for vocational careers. Educators need to provide a
more balanced approach to preparing students for the challenges beyond the
classroom. Most educators feel knowledgeable and comfortable recommending
students for college. They need to develop the same level of comfort in
recommending students to become truck drivers.
We talk about educational accountability: Well,
who’s responsible for the failure of these programs? My experience as a
vocational administrator puts the blame squarely on the school boards of
this country. They haven’t held the superintendents and principals
accountable for making sure vocational programs succeed.
Where is the vocational SOL program? I’ve watched
in my own community as school after school closed programs related to the
trades and replaced them with more college-prep courses. One school closed
a vocational electrical house-wiring program. Claimed they couldn’t get
enough students from a possible school population of 10,000 kids.
Hard to believe there weren’t 30 kids who wanted to prepare for
this lucrative trade. I
believe only a token effort was made to recruit students for this trade,
since there were no real consequences if the program failed. As a member
of the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative Board of Directors, I know
that finding and keeping a good lineman is a real challenge. Two
vocational programs for air-conditioning mechanics were also discontinued.
Have you tried to find a good AC person lately?
Electronics programs have been eliminated, which I find hard to
justify in an age built on an electronic revolution. A masonry program was
closed to make way for a bus garage, and more recently, the home-building
program was phased out. Many of these laborers have incomes that exceed
those of educators and other college graduates.
Educators try to rationalize their dwindling support
of these vocational programs by saying that industry will provide all of
these skills, and the schools should only be responsible for a basic
“3Rs” education. If that’s the case, why offer students all of
these, so-called, college-prep courses? Shouldn’t the colleges be viewed
as an industry and also be responsible providing education beyond the 3Rs?
To do anything else is discriminating against non-college-bound students,
who make up the majority of our secondary student population.
Other educators have used the excuse that these
programs are too expensive. Has
anyone ever researched the cost of not providing students with
occupational skills? Most schools have little problem justifying advanced
calculus courses that are taken by a handful of students. On what moral,
ethical or educational grounds does a school administrator eliminate a
vocational program and keep a calculus program serving the same number of
students? I call this
There was a time in our country’s development when
we had a special respect for the workers who produced the food for our
tables. Today, the word “farmer” is considered more a focal point of
jokes in the minds of many who have either forgotten or never learned the
true value of this class of laborer.
The agricultural community was the first to provide
leadership to vocational programs and laid the foundation for many of our
present land-grant universities. We need to continually remind ourselves
of the great contribution that the agricultural community made to the
education of this country.
The time has come to renew our commitment to an
expanded vocational-education effort. The new governor, the state
legislature and the state board of education need to spend as much time
and effort on this segment of the curriculum as they have on new testing
Labor Day honors Americans for their contributions to
this great economy of ours. Let’s take the time to value the talents of
all workers, as they contribute to a better future life for all.