In the past decade, a healthy development in K-12 education has been the emergence of programs like Choice Institutes and career academies, which allow students to choose a set of career-oriented courses tied to the workforce needs of local businesses.
A good example is the Gulf Power Academy at West Florida High School in Escambia County. Beginning in the ninth grade, students learn the ins and outs of real energy industry jobs, essentially "majoring" in Gulf Power while completing their other high school requirements. They graduate with four national energy industry certifications — and a mature appreciation of their career options. Some go right to work for Gulf Power; others end up working for Gulf or another company after getting two- or four-year degrees.
"The whole purpose of the program is to make them aware of real jobs, real working patterns and real job demands," says Jennifer Grove, who was the company's technical training manager when it developed the academy and is now its workforce development coordinator.
These programs succeed because they give students a sense of relevance for the math, science and other information they're asked to learn. And they present a career map where a four-year degree isn't the only route to a good job.
But the Choice Institutes and career academies reach only about one in five high school students. And they haven't reset the educational system's default focus on funneling everybody into four-year programs. More than once Grove has seen students, on track to enter a Gulf Power career right out of high school, derailed after parents convinced them they needed that four-year degree. One student, Grove says, went to college for three years, changed majors a couple times, returned home and now has entered an electrical training program — three years behind where he could have been and thousands of dollars poorer.
Grove has more than a professional reason to care. For four years, she has served on the board of Workforce Florida, which oversees the state's public-private job training and placement system.
Part of Workforce Florida's assignment is to find work for unemployed workers who need to find a job as quickly as possible. But an increasingly important part of Florida's system involves working with school districts, state colleges and technical centers to upgrade workers' skills.
Florida does OK at training but could do more. The old vo-tech centers, now technical centers, have emerged as one of the most nimble and effective parts of the system, Grove says. Meanwhile, the state's Quick Response Training Program is successful at upgrading the skills of workers needed by new and expanding businesses — the salaries of workers trained through QRT rise by an average of 47%.
But compare QRT's budget of $6 million last year — Gov. Rick Scott wants to double it — with Alabama's effort.
It spends $35 million a year on its AIDT program, a high-skill worker training program that's funded like an independent community college and has become a major economic development tool for that state.
Meanwhile, Grove sees a continuing shortage of workers statewide for "craft labor" jobs — skilled, well-paid welders, industrial electricians, pipefitters, machinists, steel workers, industrial painters and instrumentation and controls technicians, the workers who program and operate computerized machinery.
Those jobs require education and training — but not necessarily four-year degrees. An instrumentation and controls technician at Gulf Power, for example, can start work with a two-year degree in electronics (or with appropriate military experience) and earn more than $41,000 — only slightly less than an entry-level worker with a four-year computer programming degree.
Part of recalibrating the bias toward four-year degrees is simply for school districts to make students aware of good jobs, including their salaries and training requirements.
Another part involves K-12 systems beginning to create different career tracks for students based on their real skills, interests and aptitudes.
"Tracks" doesn't mean straightjackets. Students need to be pointed somewhere, but their attitudes and ambitions can evolve, and they need to be able to change course if they choose. Some professional educators will groan about the effects of tracking on students' self-esteem. But if the system is flexible, that's not a problem. And there's nothing worse for self-esteem than sitting in high school, bored senseless, sensing no relationship between your classwork and your future. Or finishing high school and discovering your diploma is, as state Sen. Don Gaetz has called it, "confederate money" — effectively worthless in the real world.
I asked Grove, the mother of four boys, whether professional people like herself are likely to ever discuss anything but college with their children. "I'm certainly doing that," she says. "I've told them not to think in terms of ‘college or no college' but rather to figure out what kind of career you want to have and what training you'll need."
Our system, Grove says, has "moved too far toward building knowledge and away from building skills. Everybody can't just think or manage. They have to be able to do something."