Vocational education is the training and retraining of individuals for particular crafts or trades, including training for mechanical and technical careers. This instruction can take place at the secondary or postsecondary level, or as part of on-the-job training and retraining programs. Vocational educators seeks to train workers for jobs that do not require degrees from four-year colleges—which account for 65 to 70 percent of all the jobs in the United States.

Vocational education—sometimes referred to as alternative education—is practical education geared towards developing the skills needed for any number of trades and careers. The length of vocational training varies depending on the skills required to perform a particular job.


Vocational education in America can be traced back to the colonial era, when youngsters learned skilled trades through apprenticeship programs. Congressional support of vocational education as part of the public school system emerged in 1862, with the passage of the Morrill Tariff Act, which encouraged the establishment of land grant colleges to teach agricultural and mechanical skills. Vocational education began to filter down to the secondary level shortly thereafter, led by Professor Calvin Woodward (1837-1914) of St. Louis's Washington University. Woodward discovered that his engineering students were "woefully inept at the use of simple tools," and therefore urged secondary schools to add training in carpentry, printing, drafting, bricklaying, machine work, and home economics. Woodward hoped to arrive at a curriculum that balanced theoretical and practical knowledge, but the system actually evolved separately from academic schools in the form of manual training and trade schools.

In 1895 the National Association of Manufacturers was founded. This group promoted vocational education as a technique for making the United States globally competitive. The association's leaders based their logic on the performance of the global economic leader of the time, Germany, which supported trade schools and apprenticeship programs. Labor leaders hoped that vocational education would keep children in school longer, thereby protecting them from harsh work environments and simultaneously shrinking the labor force, leading to wage increases. Agriculturists continued to encourage a curriculum that included scientific and technological courses that would help students advance in their field. Social reformers, largely proponents of the Progressive movement, hoped that vocational education would imbue destitute people with the Protestant work ethic and help lift them from poverty. Educational leaders were often trapped in the midst of these diverse interests: many worried that vocational education would interfere with the public school goal of "providing a common education for all students."

In the first decade of the 20th century, forces in these diverse groups formed the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education. They lobbied for, and were successful in having Congress pass, legislation launching a public vocational education system in America. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 appropriated $1.7 million for secondary-level programs and established a Federal Board of Education. States that chose to participate in the federal vocational plan had to match federal contributions, appoint state directors and boards of vocational education, and formulate local guidelines for use of the funds.

Charles A. Prosser (1871-1952), the first federal administrator of vocational education, had a lasting influence on the program. Prosser maintained that courses at vocational high schools should be job specific, and that the enabling legislation limited training to the fields of agriculture, trade and industry, and home economics. Prosser also encouraged the division of vocational training programs from mainstream public education, thereby creating a system that vocational educator and author Charles Law later characterized as separate and unequal, in part because vocational and academic teachers even had separate certification programs. Over the ensuing six decades, secondary vocational programs grew separately and focused on specific skill training, taking priority over academics. By the late 1970s, combined federal, state, and local expenditures on such programs totaled over $6.6 billion, and enrollment topped 19.5 million.

At this point, serious questions about the rationale behind, and the effectiveness of, vocational education emerged. The U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare had released its critical Work in America report in 1972. The study charged that more than 50 percent of the graduates of secondary vocational education programs did not find employment related to their specialization, that unemployment statistics for program graduates were not significantly lower than those of traditional grads, that the programs cost from 50 to 75 percent more than traditional curricula, and that the skills taught in such programs were generally obsolete. After an initially defensive reaction, professionals in the field began to question their own practices and objectives.

The issue was thrust upon the general public when the National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk in 1983. The report criticized America's public education system (including vocational education) for "offering little or no direction or assistance" to the 50 percent of high school graduates who either did not go on to college or dropped out. Dubbed "forgotten youths," these students were characterized by: having poor basic skills (including communication, math, problem-solving, and teamwork skills), the incapability to link theory and practice, the lack of participation and interest in school activities, and lack of movement from high school to college or the workplace.

Other factors—including military and corporate downsizing, a shrinking labor pool, intensifying international competition, and rising college tuition costs—have combined with public calls for change, to prompt reform efforts at all levels of education. In order to revitalize vocational education, schools and industries launched new programs or revamped traditional approaches.


Generally, there have been three methods of improving vocational education: integration of academic and vocational high schools, renewed interest in apprenticeship programs and community and technical colleges, and a plethora of private initiatives across the country.


Integration of academic and vocational high schools was promoted by the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education and Applied Technology Act of 1990. This legislation encouraged the combination of academic and vocational curricula so that students could obtain both academic and occupational knowledge and abilities. The objective of such programs reflect the goal established by Calvin Woodward for his 19th-century manual-training schools: the union of the finest curricular and instructional practices of academic and vocational education into a single learning experience. Pilot integration programs funded by the Perkins Act generally have four themes in common: promotion of academic and generic skills through an engaging curricula, activity-based motivational and practical teaching methods, interdisciplinary cooperation, and a focus on skills and knowledge needed by students to make the transition to employment or college. Such programs have been undertaken in Ohio, Kentucky, California, Oregon, and Virginia.


Apprenticeships, which have existed in the United States since the colonial era, have also received increased attention among today's vocational educators. Due to shortages of skilled workers in many fields, apprenticeships became a method for industries to help ensure they had a sufficient supply of skilled workers. Apprenticeship is a contractual relationship between an employer and an employee that lasts a specific length of time during which the apprentice worker learns all aspects (including techniques and theory) of a trade. Apprenticeships range in length from one to six years, averaging four years, and may be cosponsored by trade unions. An apprentice's pay usually amounts to half that of an experienced skilled worker, and increases over the course of the program. Individuals who successfully complete one of over 830 federally registered apprenticeships receive certification. According to the Occupational Outlook Quarterly, "About 100,000 new apprentices are registered each year," mostly in construction.

Although a high school diploma or its equivalent is usually a prerequisite to entry into an apprentice program, complaints from industries that high school students lacked sufficient skills for certain jobs prompted the growth of school-to-apprenticeship programs in which high school students split their days between academics and part-time apprenticeships. They are graduated to full-time apprenticeships and eventually reach the skilled tradesperson status. In 1990 the U.S. Department of Labor (USDL) inaugurated Apprenticeship 2000, a series of pilot school-to-work programs based on Germany's dual-educational system. The USDL also set up state and regional bureaus of apprenticeship and training around the country. These have expanded the application of the apprenticeship concept from traditional blue-collar fields such as plumbing and bricklaying, to areas including food services, health care, and the hospitality industry.


The School-to-Work Opportunity Act of 1994 officially ushered in the federal government's promotion of school and industry partnerships through five-year grants. Since the enactment of this legislation, 37 states, about 2,000 schools, 135,000 employers, and 500,000 students have participated in school-to-work programs sponsored by the act. Nevertheless, numerous school-to-work programs predated the act. For example, the Boston Private Industry Council's "Project Protech" began matching four urban high schools with some of the city's most renowned teaching hospitals in 1991. With funding from the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Work-Based Learning, the four-year program begins in a student's junior year in high school, gradually phases in on the-job training, and then segues into community college coursework after high school graduation. In addition, many other employers participate in school-to-work programs, including high-tech companies in the computer and communications industries.

Other aspects of school-to-work programs entail having students visit work sites, attend career seminars and workshops, take inventory of their skills and interests, and shadow workers. Through these programs, participating employers provide information sessions at schools and schools conduct various career workshops and seminars and offer courses on cultivating different work skills. Schools and participating employers also arrange student visits to work sites and allow students to shadow workers—or observe and follow workers as they perform their tasks.


Community and technical colleges have also become important centers of preparatory and remedial vocational education. The first community colleges opened around the turn of the century and by 1990s there were roughly 900 public two-year colleges with over 4 million students enrolled. Community colleges, especially in the second half of the century, have played an instrumental role in training students for a host of vocations. Technical colleges such as DeVry, Inc. developed later in the 20th century. DeVry, for instance, was established in 1931 as an electronics trade school with two campuses, in Chicago and Toronto. It began a period of rapid expansion in the late 1960s, and by the early 1980s the DeVry chain of schools boasted 30,000 students. Displacement of workers from the military and the defense industry, combined with rising tuition costs at liberal arts colleges have benefited community colleges such as DeVry. In the 1990s, the chain responded to industries needs for remedial worker education with on-site training programs.

Some businesses have taken vocational education upon themselves to survive. For example, the Will-Burt Co., a steel manufacturing and assembly concern in Orrville, Ohio, was faced with a myriad of problems. Declining profits and sales, employee turnover of more than 30 percent, and a product reject rate of 35 percent threatened the company's future. Remediating faulty work, in fact, consumed about 25,000 hours annually at the plant. In cooperation with Wayne College, a branch campus of the University of Akron, CEO Harry Featherstone (1929-) developed a mandatory educational course that included practical applications of math, blueprint reading, geometry, and statistics. The program was undertaken on company time at full pay. Featherstone reflected on the project's success, noting that within a few years, employee turnover was reduced to 2.5 percent, product rejects plummeted to 7 percent, and manufacturing efficiency increased over 95 percent. He estimated that the program cost $200,000.


Because of many factors, including a low national unemployment rate and public perception of skilled trade jobs, there was shortage of skilled trade workers in the 1990s. Consequently, companies, labor unions, and schools considered ways of making the skilled trades more appealing and attracting more people to them, as well as ways of training workers to perform tasks in high-tech environments. For example, the National Tooling and Machining Association reported that related job vacancies totaled about 20,000 in 1998, and the National Institute of Metalworking Skills predicted that this number would reach 40,000 by 2003.

Some solutions to the shortage include: (1) joint apprenticeship and training programs where students work as apprentices for companies while completing courses at community colleges, (2) skilled trade certification programs through community colleges, and (3) augmented high school metalworking and machine shop courses. Like other apprenticeship programs, this one allows students to hold a job in fields they are learning and gain hands on experience. In addition, it provides students with necessary classroom training in math, science, and shop skills.

Proposals for certification in the skilled trades recommend four-year cooperative programs modeled after the joint apprenticeship programs that provide students with academic preparation as well as handson experience. This program, however, would confer an associate's degree on students after completion of the program. Advocates of this program suggest that companies and unions should determine how many students participate in it based on present and projected market demand for skilled tradespersons, which would ensure graduates employment after completing the program.

Finally, high schools will have to improve their metalworking and shop classes in order train enough skilled trade workers to fill all the empty positions. High schools in California, however, tended to reduce and terminate their skilled trade programs instead of strengthening and modernizing them in the 1990s due to limited and shrinking school budgets.

SEE ALSO : Apprenticeship Programs

[ April Dougal Gasbarre ,

updated by Karl Heil ]


"Apprenticeship." Occupational Outlook Quarterly 35 (winter 1991/1992): 26-40.

Byrne, Harlan S. "DeVry Inc." Barron's, 8 February 1993, 36-38.

Gardner, Greg. "Crunch Time for Skilled Trades." Ward's Auto World, August 1998.

Law, Charles J., Jr. Tech Prep Education: A Total Quality Approach. Lancaster, PA: Technomic Publishing, 1994.

Matthes, Karen. "Apprenticeships Can Support the Forgotten Youth." HR Focus 68 (December 1991): 19.

McClure, Arthur F., James Riley Chrisman, and Perry Mock. Education for Work: The Historical Evolution of Vocational and Distributive Education in America. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1985.

"Partners in Progress: Early Steps in Creating School-to Work Systems." Spectrum: The Journal of State Government 70, no. 4(fall 1997): 15 + .

Sharf, Stephen. "Wake-Up Call: A Solution to Skilled-Trades Shortage." Ward's Auto World, August 1998.

Also read article about Vocational Education from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: