The Ohio Department of Education estimates more than 120,000 high school students take part in some type of vocational education classes every year.
And last month, Gov. John Kasich said he wants to boost that number by offering hands-on classes to kids as early as the seventh grade. And thanks to a rule change, Ohio’s younger students can actually already enroll.
But vocational education isn’t a new concept. These classes been shaping America’s workforce since the early dating back to the 1900s, says Kimberly Green, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium.
“A lot of connections in areas that the students were focused when during the World Wars, the types of skills people would need to support a war economy, “ she explained. “Then you saw in the 60s and 70s, career technical education very much focused on gender equity and helping girls get the skills that were needed to help break the glass ceiling.”
In the mid-1990s, classes started to become more technology driven, and schools broadened their vocational offerings to cover a wider variety of career fields, like marketing, graphic design, and health science. The term “vocational education” was eventually replaced with “career tech education”.
Today, Green said about 25 percent of high school students nationwide take at least three career-tech courses, and she adds that even traditional vocational trades, like electrical work and welding, are demanding more technology-based skills.
“There’s all kinds of new technologies in the construction field that make the work more efficient and thinking about and talking to the electrical field about what’s involved in wiring a house today versus wiring a house, you know, 50 years ago,” she said. “The world has changed and even those traditional trades have changed as well.”
Governor Kasich is calling for renewed attention to teaching skilled trades. At his state-of-the-state address in February, Kasich not only talked up career tech, but suggested introducing it to kids much earlier.
“We want kids to have a connection to this in the seventh grade,” Kasich said to applause.
But that idea has some in the field scratching their heads. At E-HOVE, a career tech center near Sandusky, Superintendent Sharon Mastroianni thinks it’s a great idea for middle school students to explore their career interests at an earlier age. But she says the resources aren’t quite there to do it.
“We do not have the capacity, facility wise or staff wise, to have 7th and 8th graders on our campus earning credit,” Mastroianni said. “And I don’t know any career center that could have that opportunity.”
Lima City Schools superintendent Jill Ackerman says that’s also true in her district.
But that’s not her only reservation.
She says some of the hands-on experience that comes along with certain career tech offerings may not work for a younger crowd.
“We’re not going to weld and do construction trades in seventh grade,” Ackerman said.
But she does like the idea of introducing the basic concepts of potential careers to seventh and eighth graders.
“I think we need to help kids to develop an awareness of what is welding, what is construction trades, how does it apply,” she said.
Last September, the Ohio Department of Education quietly changed its rules to allow younger kids in career tech programs. But so far, no specific plans or appropriations have been proposed – either by the governor in his mid-biennium review, or by the legislature.
To ODE spokesman John Charlton, the governor’s ideas about expanding career tech education are just the beginning of the career-tech conversation rather than the end.
“These are things that are going to have to be discussed and talked about and how they can best be rolled out,” Charlton said. “It’s going to play out differently in every single school district.”
School districts who aren’t interested in expanding their career tech offerings can opt out by passing a resolution, according to Kasich’s Mid-Biennium Budget Review.