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With Youth Unemployment This High, Remind Me What's So Bad About Vocational Education? | The Nation

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Dana Goldstein

Dana Goldstein

 Education, health, women's issues and politics.

With Youth Unemployment This High, Remind Me What's So Bad About Vocational Education?


(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The Times’s Catharine Rampell has reported an important story about the bleak economic prospects for young people with just a high school degree. Only about a third of this group is employed full-time.

Ms. McClour and her husband, Andy, have two daughters under 3 and another due next month. She said she tried enrolling in college classes, but the workload became too stressful with such young children. Mr. McClour works at a gas station. He hates his work and wants to study phlebotomy, but the nearest school is an hour and a half away.

“My mother is my day care,” Ms. McClour said. “We can’t move that far away.”

Others surveyed said college was out of reach because of the cost or family responsibilities.

Many of these young people had been expecting to go to college since they started high school, perhaps anticipating that employers would demand skills high schools do not teach. Just one in 10 high school graduates without college degrees said they were “extremely well prepared by their high school to succeed in their job after graduation.”

There’s a lot to grapple with in the story of the McClours, including lack of access to affordable, professional childcare, as well as the wisdom of having three children before the age of 22. But I also think it’s crucial to ask why our public high schools are pumping so many young people out into the economy who feel totally stuck in dead-end jobs. Part of it is that the high school curriculum isn’t rigorous enough in the academic subjects that prepare one to succeed in college, and part of it is that students are given no exposure whatsoever to the world of work. The result is that when non-college-going teenagers leave high school, they find themselves rudderless in a harshly unforgiving economy.

The United States has a 22 percent youth unemployment rate, compared to rates below 10 percent in Western Europe. One reason why is because many Western European education systems include highly structured workplace apprenticeships that connect teenagers to employment options, and then direct them to higher education. To learn more about how these programs work, check out my interview with Nancy Hoffman, author of the book Schooling in the Workplace.

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