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.