Where Have All the Shop Classes Gone?

Are we allowing everyone a fair shot at the American Dream if we remove trade programs from schools?

So what does high school have to do with record housing prices?  Perhaps your mind wanders to the fact that we currently have more college graduates in America than at any other time in our history. We’ve been told the more educated we are, the higher the income we’ll receive and the more stuff we can buy.  I have told my own children that in order to get a nice home, take a nice vacation, and drive a nice car that a college education is the path.  I imagine this is a common conversation in one form or another with children everywhere.  But by doing so are we actually making the American dream harder to achieve?

This summer I had the chance to spend some time on our family ranch and introduce my oldest son to the experiences I so cherished when I was his age.  I loved working long days with my hands.  And because something always broke or an unforeseen problem would arise that no one had ever seen before, I was always problem-solving.  Perhaps this is where I acquired my passion for innovation and product development.  Deep down in a place I cannot describe, perhaps I wanted something to trigger in my son where he would want to embrace his heritage.

My family heritage started with the settling of the west when only territories existed.  And unlike the glamorization of the movies, this was a very inhospitable place. Today, my family are still ranchers and farmers making a decent living and doing what they love - and not one of them has a college education.  Without them there would be no food for me to buy using the income I generate from my own college education.  It seems that in our push for everyone to be a college graduate (learning is always a noble goal, not only for four years but for your entire life) we have eliminated an element in our education that has fueled innovation and craftsmen alike - high school shop classes.

So how did this happen, seemingly, without anyone noticing?

With a push towards college-bound classes, the number of people taking shop classes began to decline in the 1970s.

For California, the decline can be attributed to the passing of Proposition 13 in 1978 - an initiative that was supposed to restructure property taxes to benefit homeowners, but resulted in a 60% drop in tax revenue. Prior to the passing of Prop 13, those revenues provided almost half of the funding for California public schools. With cutbacks being forced, shop classes were the first on the chopping block.

In 2000, New York vocational school enrollment declined by 25% in three years. Not a single shop teacher could be found in the city’s trade schools at that time and the heads of building trades began complaining about the shortage of skilled workers in plumbing and carpentry.

During the same time period in Colorado, Denver started gutting their shop classes to make room for more science, engineering and math courses that were being required (schools north of Denver up through Wyoming were less affected). More recently, Denver has been scrambling to reinstate their shop/woodworking classes because businesses in the area were complaining about the lack of skilled laborers in the trade industries.

Tucson also saw the decline in shop classes begin in the 70s due to a push towards those same college-bound courses. Fast forward to 2009 where the trade industries were pushing for those same shop classes to be reinstated due to a lack of skilled labor. A teacher in Tucson actually created a building-trades program in a local high school “at the urging of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association.”

According to the Journal of Industrial Education in the mid-1980s, of the 48,000 shop teachers in the U.S. the average age of a teacher was 55. There were few people trained to take over those jobs once they retired.

This trend in back-and-forth makes one thing very clear: We need skilled trades people.

We can all agree technology is necessary, interesting, and inevitable. The problem we are facing is when you push the majority of the future labor into strictly technology-based fields, no one is being trained in these important trade industries. We’re so concerned about working towards making our schools technology-driven so that we can “compete” with other countries that we’re forgetting who is currently building the homes we live in.

We still need to build houses. Yes, in the future we expect to see a lot of these processes simplified into modular elements, but for now we need skilled laborers. By killing shop classes we’ve lost the chance for students to test the waters to see if they have an aptitude and desire to make a career in the trades. Instead, we have essentially told kids there’s no future in that career choice.

Every kid deserves a chance to go to college. The reality is that not every kid will be able to afford it and not every kid wants to go. What does the cancelling of shop classes say to the young people who feel working with their hands is their calling? Our schools spend a lot of time and energy investing in high school football programs where the majority of the kids involved will see no income from that as a career - do we have our priorities straight?

This quote from a NY Times article in 2000 demonstrates this idea:

“Down the hall from the plumbing shop...Hugo Cruz, a senior studying electrical installation, was finishing up a wiring job on a 220-volt control panel, his final project for the year. ‘You know how they say you have a natural-born talent?'' he asked. ''That's me. I love this job. I like to have pride in what I do. If one day I build a whole building, I'll be able to look at it and say I did that.'’

Today there are more college educated Americans than ever before but a limited number of people who are capable of building our dream homes.  The labor shortage in the construction industry is complex and there are many more variables than just the hypothesis I am proposing here. But similar to boiling a frog, the outcome was clearly defined long before the frog realized what was happening.  

The solution to this shortage may be right in front us.  As of June 2016, the current unemployment rate for those with a college education was 2.5%; 5% for high school educated, and 7.5% for those who did not graduate high school.  The Bureau of Labor statistics says this is about 5MM people. How many more of those with a high school education or less (like Hugo Cruz) missed their calling because there were no shop classes in their high school?  We have relied on the taxpayers to fund these programs in the past and it appears it will remain in the past.  It is the trade industries, builders, and manufacturers who make products but there is no one to install them and ultimately the homebuyers are the ones paying the price.

It is human nature for us to move away from pain and towards comfort.  Couldn’t the industry solve this problem on its own by sponsoring high school shop classes and create career paths for many more Americans?!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject - especially if you’re a current or retired shop class teacher. Comment on the blog or email me at Cal.Trumbo@miginnovation.com.