De-Stigmatizing Career and Technical Education

By Jeremy Monk
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017

I remember being seated in my high school’s cafeteria, waiting to leave for an information session at a local technical and career education centre. I must acknowledge that I attended a public high school known for its academic rigour and high ranking, where most students laughed at the idea of attending vocational school instead of university.

Before embarking on this trip, our school counsellor told us a story that went something like this: “You’re rushed to the hospital one evening and told that you will need emergency surgery in the next few hours for a rare infection, or else you may not live. The only doctor who knows how to perform this surgery is currently at his country house and will only be able to arrive in an hour. The doctor takes his fancy car and begins the drive from his country house to the hospital. Twenty minutes into his drive, something happens to his engine and his car stalls on a rural highway. The doctor calls a local mechanic, who rushes over and, in a few minutes, diagnoses and fixes the issue. The doctor makes it to the hospital and successfully performs the surgery.” Our school counsellor then asked the following questions: “Who do you thank? Who should you thank?” The questions were rhetorical, but we were all aware that if we were to respond to both questions, the answers would not be the same.

In both the United States and Canada, career, vocational, and technical education have become increasingly stigmatized and undervalued in recent decades, particularly in urban areas. Since the 1980s, funding for technical education programs has decreased and vocational credits offered in high school have dropped. The notion that someone may not attend a four-year university or college program is often looked down upon, with those individuals taking vocational courses being perceived as less “intelligent” than someone earning a bachelor’s degree. Whether it is taking vocational courses in high school or opting for technical programs in post-secondary institutions, this type of formal education has been portrayed as a plan B, a silver medal for underachieving students in high schools.

In direct opposition to this stigma is the need for an educated and well-prepared workforce, especially in the rapidly changing tech economy. Interestingly enough, while social stigma surrounds career education in North America, strengthening these programs is of the few remaining policy issues receiving bipartisan support. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, demand for middle-skilled professionals, such as electricians, construction managers, healthcare workers, and mechanics will only increase in the near future. Jobs that require some sort of post-secondary education short of a bachelor’s degree have exploded in recent decades. In addition, the push by children and parents to pursue bachelor’s degrees has led to an oversupply of university and college graduates. Recent data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York showed that nearly 44 percent of recent college grads were employed in jobs not requiring degrees in 2016. The desire for the prestigious bachelor’s degree and the well paying white-collar job that would soon accompany it still looms; however, this perfect path may not be as attainable as the excited freshman once hoped.

While it is difficult to quantify the stigmatization of career and technical education, it is evident that the devaluing of these programs is most prevalent in North America. Germany has long been the international role model for technical education. In addition to more adequate funding and greater opportunities, a main difference between Germany and North America is simply the allure surrounding vocational education. The idea that career and technical education is second-rate in university/college-obsessed North America remains strong. However, in Germany, where a greater percentage of young people opt for non-university post-secondary education, which often includes classroom work alongside apprenticeships, there is much greater respect shown towards these career paths. Similar social and education philosophies are dominant in Scandinavia. In Finland, often referenced as the jewel of all national education systems, nearly 45 percent of students choose a technical path, not an academic one. In Norway, vocational and technical schools are considered to be prestigious. The perception of technical education in Europe could not be more different than how many North Americans perceive these programs.     

The undervaluing of career and technical education, which has led to the underfunding and low enrolment of these courses and programs, goes beyond the employment and economic issues often referenced in research. By characterizing one form of education as inferior and deeming it less useful, we ultimately undervalue the person as well. When white-collar jobs are valued more than blue-collar jobs, we ultimately create greater social divisions.

While the most evident rift in education valuation in North America concerns technical schools and colleges, there are other ways in which some forms of education are belittled. For instance, most college and university students are aware that certain academic fields, especially within the arts, are seen as ‘less than’; that these degrees may be ridiculed by others for a lack of employment opportunities. These numerous forms of devaluation create a social hierarchy, isolate individuals, and further divide people. By working to end the stigma surrounding certain education paths, namely career education, and by not pushing children, whether overtly or clandestinely, to discount non-college degrees, we can build communities which respect all types of work.

Thinking back to the story I shared above: While the doctor may receive all the praise and cushy salary, let us not forget that if it weren’t for the mechanic, the doctor would still be stranded on the side of the road.