, Salem, MA

November 16, 2012

Vocational education isn’t what it used to be

Brian Cranney
and Linda Saris

---- — If you graduated high school before 1990, your perception of vocational education is undoubtedly out-of-date.

No longer is this just an alternative pathway for kids who are not on a college track, nor is it an academic track that prepares students for entry-level jobs that require only a high school diploma. It is not an environment where academic expectations are low and postsecondary education is not an option.

Allow us to introduce you to Career-Technical Education, an academically rigorous course of study designed to prepare students for technical careers or college-level classes, both technical and academic. CTE provides hands-on, applied learning experiences that build academic knowledge, problem-solving skills, general employment skills and specific career skills that lead to industry credentialing.

CTE is available to Salem students at North Shore Technical High School in Middleton and Salem High School, where there are three vocational programs (auto tech, electrical and culinary arts) and many elective courses, such as carpentry, metal working and child development.

Students sign up for these courses for a variety of reasons:

An opportunity for hands-on, practical experience in a field that may lead to a career, postsecondary education or just useful life skills.

An opportunity to explore different career paths before entering college or the workforce.

An opportunity to learn a skill or trade that will provide them with a job while pursuing a postsecondary education.

As city budgets tighten and as we see the expansion plans for North Shore Tech and the success of its students, we might be tempted to question the need for CTE at Salem High, where there is an overlap in programs. In Salem, approximately 100 students per year apply to North Shore Tech, and 60 don’t get accepted. Others, including immigrants and transfers, arrive at Salem High after freshman year and don’t have a chance to apply to the regional school. That leaves a sizable number of students at the high school who want vocational education options.

In Essex County, 38 percent of students do not go on to any postsecondary education. Many students see no clear connection between their schoolwork and tangible opportunities in the labor market and, as a result, find learning boring and irrelevant. School learning is indeed abstract, theoretical and discipline-based, while work is concrete, specific to the task, organized by projects and problems, and cross-disciplinary. Work-based learning is a credible, proven alternative education pathway for many youths who are disengaged from learning and at risk for dropping out.

Nick Arno is a 2009 graduate of North Shore Tech, arriving there after eighth grade at Collins Middle School. “I was always interested in working with my hands and attending vocational school. Being able to link academic subjects, particularly math and science, with my career interest definitely helped me stay engaged in school,” he says. Nick left North Shore Tech at the height of the recession and got a job as an electrician at Cranney Home Services, where he is still employed.

The Salem High vocational department, run by Richard McLaughlan (former principal of North Shore Tech), is state-certified and prepares its four-year students to enter the labor market or get college credit in their vocational area. Graduates receive a Massachusetts Vocational Certificate in addition to their high school diploma, enabling them to receive vocational credit toward an apprenticeship or advanced standing in the military.

There are 141 students enrolled in these programs, and another 140 students participate through the exploratory programs. While it is difficult to track all the money in and out of these programs, the math seems to indicate that most of the costs are being covered. The school is considering whether to add more programs, such as facilities management, early child development and medical assisting.

Of the 33 students who graduated in 2010 from the four-year programs, 12 went to postsecondary education, 10 went to work in the trade they studied, and 11 either went to work in an unrelated field or the data was not available.

Ben Kapnis, a senior at Salem High School, is completing the electrical vocational program and is planning to study electrical engineering in college. “I chose to go to Salem High School because I knew I wanted to go to college but didn’t know what I wanted to do. I chose the electrical program because it was hands-on and taught me real-life skills,” he says. “Every day, we are doing real projects like building an alarm or light system, and I am never bored. It was because of this program that I decided to try electrical engineering.”

We are living in a rapidly changing world, one in which middle-skills jobs that do not require a four-year degree are growing in importance. Technology is infiltrating not only the STEM and health care fields, but also the trades, requiring significantly more training. Just receiving a traditional high school degree will not be enough to fill these jobs.

We encourage anyone interested to take a tour of the high school vocational wing. You will come away inspired.


Linda Saris is director of Salem CyberSpace, an after-school program for low-income youths. Brian Cranney is president of Cranney Cos. in Danvers and a graduate of Salem High School’s vocational program.