There has been a huge debate nationally for many years that has gained heightened attention recently, on the issue of whether skills-based education prepares students better for occupational life than traditional academic programs. I for one see both sides of the argument, and as an educator, and having worked 16 years in the manufacturing sector, I believe there is room for both. There has certainly been more dollars allocated from the Obama administration to increase training opportunities in areas such as advanced manufacturing to community and technical colleges such as Emily Griffith Technical College as a result of placement opportunities that exist in skilled technician job openings. So how do we prepare these next-generation workers?
The rise of certificate attainment in higher education also lends credence to this approach and is highlighted by the fact that in 1980, certificates represented 6 percent of the awards at the nation’s colleges as compared to 22 percent of awards today. Certificates have become the second most awarded postsecondary credential, and in industry sectors such as information technology, certificate holders earn more than their degree-holder counterparts. And we know from recent research that postsecondary education attainment of any kind leads to more dollars earned in the job market by individuals versus attainment of just a high school diploma.
The national debate on this issue around postsecondary outcomes (skills-based versus traditional) agrees, at least in principal, that students need to master core academic competencies, and where both disagree is in areas such as the competencies needed to address critical thinking and other soft skills, and also examines the modality in delivering these important workplace competencies. European models stress the importance of students selecting a pathway into a traditional college experience or in an occupational track at an early age, say 16, and then tailoring their educational experiences around those pathways. This model also emphasizes the importance of gaining real-world experiences outside the classroom. I think this is especially important to note as the unemployment rate for youth in this country hovers around 22 percent, whereas this figure is around 5 percent in the Netherlands or Switzerland for example.
Where in this country we have 20 percent of 26-year-olds who do not possess any type of postsecondary credential, I personally like the idea of guiding students into opportunities that allow for structure and work experiences that lead to self-sufficiency and assists in the “democratic society” approach where individuals vote, pay taxes, and become productive citizens that is held by the side of the debate that promotes traditional pathways with these same ideals. I also believe that the same critical thinking and interpersonal skills realized as important on both sides of the debate can be achieved in both pathways. The same liberal arts skills which are happening in traditional college environments that foster those lifelong workplace skills, can also be, and are in most cases, embedded in occupational, skills-based programs.
The key lies in better educating students, parents, K-12 educators and leaders, and society in general, on the importance of both pathways, and providing the tools to assist individuals in choosing their own path.