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Professional Opinion

Vocational education: From the three ‘Rs’ to the four ‘Cs’

Students need academics and soft skills to avoid becoming obsolete in future workforce
Robert Urzillo is a retired superintendent and now director of the graduate education program at Rosemont College.
Robert Urzillo is a retired superintendent and now director of the graduate education program at Rosemont College.

Vocational education at the secondary level has a long and storied tradition in the history of the United States. It is an institutional framework that meets the needs of individual students and the American economy.

This type of education serves a great purpose through the training of students who can immediately go into the workforce upon high school graduation. Furthermore, not every student wants to attend college, nor should we push all students toward the acquisition of a four-year degree.

We need skilled workers such as electricians, plumbers, auto technicians and a host of other occupations that are vital to continued economic growth. I have no doubt that secondary vocational schools train their students in the skills and knowledge base that are necessary for success in their vocational fields of endeavor.

I also believe in the validity of such programs. However—and this is the crux of the problem—I do have concerns about the context of what is being taught to vocational students in a rapidly changing economy.

To quote Georgia Nugent, the former president of the College of Wooster: “It is a horrible irony that at the very moment the world has become more complex, we are encouraging our young people to be highly specialized in one task.”

Transformation and obsolescence

The changing nature of our economy is beyond doubt. We all know about the near death of traditional manufacturing jobs in the United States.

Yes, some of the decline is due to offshoring but more of the change is due to the rapid advance of technology. In short, none of us can predict what a non-routine job will look like in the future.

Can the job functions of a welder, a plumber or an auto technician be automated? We do not know, but considering the advances made by technology, it is safe to say that students trained in a narrow field are at high risk of job transformation or obsolescence at a relatively young age.

So, what can we do to educate students in vocational schools to mitigate the reality of job transformation or obsolescence? It is important to determine what will best arm students, on a cognitive basis, for future change that will be more complex, challenging and oriented toward high technology.

To survive and thrive economically and occupationally, people will need to be lifetime learners. Lifetime learning will extend to domains beyond their original vocational training. The concept of learning how to learn will be of the greatest importance. Therefore, the question becomes how do we prepare people to learn how to learn?

It is my belief that what we call the basic skills—reading and mathematics—are still the best foundation for continued learning and cognitive growth—but they are just the first step.

Thomas Friedman wrote that in addition to the three R’s, students in the future will need the four C’s: coding, communications, creativity and collaboration.

Future learning

It is my belief that we can no longer train vocational students only for a career in an existing field; instead, the curricula need to be more comprehensive. Rigorous standards in math, science and written and oral communications should be embedded into the vocational curriculum. We must also assess and remediate reading skills.

If we fail to develop an academic program for vocational students that fails to equip them with greater knowledge and skills, we are doing a disservice to both the students and the nation.

To succeed we must be increasingly conscious of the need to promote challenging academic training coupled with a vocational curriculum—and view this as an opportunity, not a problem.


Robert Urzillo is a retired superintendent and now director of the graduate education program at Rosemont College.