“Shop class” suffers from a long-standing image problem. The skills training taught there is increasingly viewed as a relic and an unnecessary expense as high schools have shifted their focus to placing students in four-year colleges while working within ever-tightening school budgets.
The Miller Center’s Milstein Commission on New Manufacturing , co-chaired by former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and former Indiana Governor and Senator Evan Bayh, was recently convened to identify and advance ideas that would encourage the growth of small- and medium-size manufacturing enterprises (SMEs) and the middle-class jobs they provide.
Part of their focus was the skills gap widely acknowledged among manufacturing experts as a significant impediment to SME growth. Today, growing manufacturing enterprises frequently have trouble finding qualified workers.
And, what was one of the solutions proposed by commission members to close that gap and build a more skilled and responsive labor market?
You guessed it: shop class.
A four-year college degree used to promise a more assured path to the American Dream, so educators emphasized preparation for higher education over vocational training. That simply is no longer the case. Droves of college graduates now enter the workforce overloaded with debt from student loans and experiencing greatly diminished prospects than college graduates before them.
At the same time, the manufacturing sector has undergone technological innovations that offer expanded opportunities for “makers” working within the 21st-century marketplace. It is time for a new and slightly re-envisioned shop class to better link the skilled workforce with labor needs.
The Milstein Commission has proposed to expand skills training opportunities — particularly in the technology and engineering sectors — as part of the high school curriculum. The commission proposes taking another step by recommending that high school students earn a certified, industry-recognized skill before graduating high school. Those certifications would function much like advanced placement tests, which offer transferrable college credits to students who score at a certain level on the placement exam.
“Manual skills alone aren’t enough, and neither is a 4-year college degree,” said John Aughenbaugh, a Project Lead the Way (PLTW) teacher at Warhill High School in Williamsburg, Virginia. PLTW is a program sponsored by the Association for Manufacturing Excellence that introduces high-school students to technical training through a host of elective courses, ranging from wood- and metal-working to computer modeling and 3-D design. Aughenbaugh noted high retention rates in these classes — more than half take more than two of the elective courses and approximately 25 percent take more than three — and highlights the importance of students gaining the technical expertise to move from designing something to actually making it.
Raven Sickal, a Warhill High School senior who took PLTW courses in computer-animated design, introduction to engineering and computer-integrated manufacturing, said a world opened up for her when she took those courses and visited local manufacturers as part of a PLTW-sponsored Manufacturing Day. After her graduation, she hopes to pursue an engineering career through the two-year professional track offered at the Newport News Apprentice School.
Skills training at the high school level offers three important benefits. It provides high school graduates immediately entering the workforce with skills that increase their likelihood of employment and entry into the middle class; it equips students pursuing four-year degrees business and technical acumen beyond what a four-year degree may offer; and it works to better align industry needs with the skills of an emerging workforce.
It should be viewed as an essential part of a well-rounded education, not as the ghost of a bygone era.
Juliana Bush is the coordinator of Student and Policy Programs at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.