Work in the Precarious Economy   /   Spring 2016   /    Work In The Precarious Economy

Vocational Education and the New World of Work

Mike Rose

Instructor and apprentice; © 2/Image Source/Ocean/Corbis.

Because something is technologically possible doesn’t mean that humans will embrace it.

The current resurgence of interest in vocational education—known these days as career and technical education, or CTE—coincides with a flood of ominous-sounding predictions about the impending transformation of work, a change that may result in the diminishment of work or possibly even in its end. The prospect of such a vast transformation raises the inevitable question: Will there soon be any vocations for vocational education students to enter?

Since the early 1990s, government and private organizations have invested heavily in efforts to reform vocational education, in some cases by increasing its academic content (more math and literacy instruction in carpentry or culinary training, for example), in others by establishing more direct pathways from school to workplace. In line with once-anticipated employment trends, traditional shop classes in the construction trades, automotive repair, and machining were cut back, and programs in health care, computer and green technologies, and certain service industries were expanded.

More recently, economists, social critics, and other commentators have called for an expansion of vocational education, including a return of those old shop classes, though updated and computerized to match the needs of the current labor market. There are good jobs, economists point out, in midlevel technical occupations such as specialized manufacturing. Some educators emphasize that the wide variety of student interests and aptitudes is inadequately served by the typical academic curriculum. And the dramatic rise of the Makers and Do-It-Yourself movements has cast a new, more favorable light on vocational education. Shouldn’t all kids have the experience of applying knowledge, of making things, of tinkering? Finally, chambers of commerce, trade groups, statehouses, and even the president of the United States have been championing community college occupational programs for technology-enhanced jobs in manufacturing, engineering and design, and health care. It would seem to be a promising time for CTE.

Yet on the same opinion page where you find someone touting the virtues of vocational education, you may also come across a column describing the world of work that is now emerging. At the core of this brave new workplace, we are usually reminded, is the rapidly evolving processing and problem-solving capacity of computer technology. Witness over the last half-century the increased automation of manufacturing and, more recently, the “hollowing out” of seemingly secure white-collar professional jobs that can be broken down into component parts and digitized, from bookkeeping to reading medical images. This increase in computer power and the resulting hemorrhaging of jobs will increase exponentially, the forecasters predict, aided by the postindustrial reorganization of work, the loss of union power and collective bargaining protections, and the rise of new businesses such as Uber that substitute part-time, entrepreneurial “gig” work with no protections or benefits for those more secure career trajectories that came with being a taxi driver, a dispatcher, or a hotel worker. These altered conditions have given rise to a new vocabulary of work, with precarious serving as the ubiquitous adjective.

There’s no disputing the arrival of the first wave of this transformed world of work. What it will yield a decade or two down the line is the much-debated question. But whatever that longer-term outcome is, it will have major implications for education in general and for CTE in particular. Given the uncertainties of what will unfold—including the great uncertainty of how we will respond politically to the challenges—how do we propose to educate young people for these possible futures?

To answer, we might begin by considering the powerful current of technological determinism that shapes some of the writing on the future of work. Though computerization and economic restructuring are changing the workplace profoundly, the way this change plays out in the future will be affected not only by continued advances in technology but also by economic policy, legal decisions, politics, business and cultural trends, and social movements. Technology is a powerful force, but it does not function or evolve in isolation. In fact, the history of technology is replete with examples of technological innovations that either had a short life span or were never taken up at all. Because something is technologically possible doesn’t mean that humans will embrace it.

Similarly, we need to be wary of predictions of human obsolescence. Robots can now perform remarkable acts of dexterity—unscrewing a lid, for example—that were once thought to be impossible. Achievements of this sort lead technology futurists to assume that continued advances will lead inexorably to machines with even greater human-level dexterity. While such predictions tend to overgeneralize from a breakthrough at one level of engineering to quite another level of sophistication, let’s assume that the unlikely happens and robots are developed that not only unscrew lids but also cut human hair, putting the jobs of three-quarters of a million American hairstylists at risk. Would the average person want to forego the touch, judgment, aesthetic sensibility, and free-flowing conversation a human stylist provides, even if a robot could be programmed to execute a technically proficient graduated bob?

The history of technology also demonstrates that while a new technology (the stethoscope or telephone, for example) can sometimes profoundly affect what we can do in and to the world, that technology usually emerges from previous technologies and practices, and its adoption is affected by them. While the new technology typically requires that its users develop new skills, it also draws on existing knowledge and skills, even as it might alter them. In fact, old-technology knowledge can enhance performance. My friend Mavourneen Wilcox was, as a young astronomer, quite skilled at the use of adaptive optics, a revolutionary method of correcting—through an elaborate system of optical sensors and a segmented, rapidly changing mirror—the atmospheric distortion of the light from celestial objects. She credits her finesse in manipulating the instrument to all the time she spent in old-school electronics labs and machine shops, learning “how to work around things when they don’t go right.” We certainly want a new CTE to be responsive to changes in the nature and distribution of work, but we also need to be historically grounded in our assessment of the work that lies ahead.

The Great Divide

The changes in work we are currently witnessing have several immediate implications for CTE. Quite clearly, some level of computer skill will be necessary for any kind of work, from hairstyling to auto mechanics to medical technology. So-called soft job skills (communication, punctuality, flexibility) have been part of the national discussion about work for decades. More recently, we’ve been hearing a lot about qualities of character such as determination, optimism, and (the big buzzword of the moment) grit. These soft skills and qualities of character will serve a person well in a precarious economy, where, the reasoning goes, resilience, adaptability, and the like become not just desirable but necessary for survival. So, too, will training in entrepreneurship, which will prepare people to seize opportunities and promote their talents and resources.

All well and good. But there are deeper, culturally ingrained questions that need to be addressed, whatever the future holds. And while these questions have been around for some time, the urgencies of a new world of work may finally make us take them seriously.

The first is the long-standing divide in the American school curriculum between the “academic” and “vocational” courses of study, a distinction institutionalized in the early-twentieth-century high school. The vocational curriculum prepared students for the world of work, usually blue- or pink-collar work, while the academic curriculum emphasized the arts and sciences and the cultivation of intellectual life. The separation contributed to the formation of a caste system within the school—“social predestination,” in the words of John Dewey.

Another significant problem resulting from the academic-vocational separation is summed up in a piece of historical analysis provided in a report by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education: “Vocational teachers emphasized job-specific skills to the almost complete exclusion of theoretical content. One result was that the intellectual development of vocational students tended to be limited at a relatively early age.” The report captures a fatal flaw of vocational education as it has been practiced in the United States: its devaluing of the intellectual dimension of common work and of the people who do it. During the past three decades, school reformers have been trying to bridge the curricular divide, mainly by abolishing the rigid system that tracked students into either the academic or the vocational curriculum. But the designation of a course as “academic” still evokes intelligence, smarts, big ideas, while the tag “vocational” conjures quite the opposite impression.

Related to the academic/vocational divide in higher education is the “liberal ideal,” which enshrines the study of the liberal arts for their own sake, separate from any connection to the world of work, crafts and trades, and commerce. That ideal has been with us since Plato and Aristotle. It found full expression in Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Victorian-era tract The Idea of a University, and it figures in critical discussions of higher education today, particularly as colleges and universities devote even more of their resources to fields of study beyond the traditional liberal arts.

In their book Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do about It, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus make a powerful contribution to those discussions. They rightly criticize the contemporary university for a host of sins: soaring tuition, the production of endless esoteric research, the exploitation of adjunct teachers. But in making their argument for restoring the university to something closer to Newman’s ideal, the authors fall prey to the assumption that anything vocational cannot lead to the liberation of imagination or the stretching of intellect. How telling it is that this bold critique of higher education uncritically endorses the existence of an inviolable divide between academic and vocational pursuits, a divide that denies the intellectual and imaginative possibilities of any course of study related to work.

Hand in glove with the crude division of human learning into the academic and the vocational has been the social construction of the vocational student as someone either uninterested in or incapable of dealing with topics typically defined as abstract or intellectual. We find this stereotyping in the early deliberations about vocational education in the United States. Psychologists and educators asserted the limited mental capacity of the immigrant and working-class students for whom vocational education was created. As opposed to college-bound students (overwhelmingly white and middle to upper class) who were “abstract minded,” working-class and immigrant students were “manually minded”—their brains functioned differently. The terminology has changed, but there is still a strong tendency among some policymakers and educators to assume such cognitive limitation among vocational students. Those students might be skilled, dexterous, hard working, even resourceful and inventive, but, educators wrongly conclude, they are not good at abstraction or the conceptual and not interested in history or psychology or literature.

For some vocational teachers and programs, such beliefs can translate into a de-emphasizing of the conceptual content of work. Historically, these beliefs have also resulted in a bland curriculum of non-vocational subjects: science lite or history lite. But students who may dread the sight of a history or science textbook can still be interested in history or science—or a host of other subjects, when they are presented in a way that doesn’t conjure up the driest aspects of the schoolhouse.

Several years ago, I sat in on a humanities course at an occupationally oriented community college, a course required for the associate of arts degree. Most of the students were in the construction trades. The class was assigned several essays that dealt with education, sociology, and economics—topics that would seem pertinent to this group. But the discussion went nowhere. Most of the students were disengaged. Some were talking with one another. The instructor was treading water. Fortunately, he had brought in a guest speaker that day, and soon the guest took over. He was in education but, it turned out, had grown up in the neighborhood of the college, the descendant of people who had worked in the manufacturing and service industries. He began by talking about his background and tied it to some of the topics in the essays. Then he asked the students to describe their high schools, and he pointed out connections with the essays. As the class proceeded, it became clear that the students had much to say about the themes in the readings, whether they touched on economics and inequality, race and social class, or the goals of education.

There are so many moments in vocational education when values, ethical questions, and connections of self to tradition and community emerge naturally, ripe for thoughtful consideration. Surrounding such issues, influencing them at every level of working life, are the profound effects of social location, history, economics, and politics—the very factors that contribute to the viability and meaning of a vocation. Unfortunately, the early architects of vocational education eliminated these concerns from the curriculum, and voc-ed has remained fairly anemic in those areas ever since.

Give Workers Back Their Heads

If the theorists of the new world of work are right, then tomorrow’s CTE student will need to be computer savvy, resourceful, and entrepreneurial. But the theorists’ predictions suggest the need for other educational goals as well.

Intellectual suppleness will have to be as key an element of future CTE as the content knowledge of a field. The best CTE already helps students develop an inquiring, problem-solving cast of mind, but to make developing such a cast of mind standard practice will require an excavation of the beliefs about work and intelligence that led to the separation of the “academic” and the “vocational” in the first place. Of course, students will learn the tools, techniques, and routines of practice of a particular field. You can’t become proficient without them. But in addition, students will need to learn the conceptual bases of those tools and techniques and how to reason with them, because future work is predicted to be increasingly fluid and mutable.

We also will need to examine our culturally received assumptions about people who are drawn to any of the pursuits that fall within CTE, from the hospitality industry to nursing to the construction trades. To borrow a phrase from labor journalist William Serrin, we need “to give workers back their heads” and assume and encourage the intellectual engagement of students in the world of work. And more than ever we need to provide CTE students with a serious and substantial education in history, sociology and psychology, economics and politics. What are the forces shaping the economy? Are there any pressure points for individual or collective action? How did we get to this place, and are there lessons to be learned from exploring that history? What resources are out there? What options do I have? How do I determine their benefits and liabilities? Though a curriculum that would give rise to questions like these has typically not been part of traditional vocational education, there is a separate history of worker education programs that blend politics, social sciences, and humanities with occupational education, from early-twentieth-century labor colleges to contemporary institutions like the Van Arsdale Labor Center at Empire State College. We have models to learn from.

These reconsiderations will require a philosophy of education that has at its core a bountiful definition of intelligence and that honors multiple kinds of knowledge and advances the humanistic, aesthetic, and ethical dimensions of an occupational as well as more traditional academic course of study. We need such a philosophy now, but we will need it even more in tomorrow’s world of work. Otherwise, the education of future workers will be cognitively narrow and politically passive, adding little more to the current curriculum than additional training in computer skills or techniques of self-promotion. Teach those things, of course, but also educate young workers so that they have multiple skills and bodies of knowledge to draw on, so that they are able to analyze and act upon opportunities to affect the direction of their employment, and so that they can strive to create meaning in their working lives.