Food For Thought

Doing Real Work to Earn a Living
by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini

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 our society.

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.

More Emphasis on

Vocational Education Needed

The 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 “intellectual snobbery.”

Leadership Direction

What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.

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 schemes. 

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.


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