Friday, April 27, 2012

Rural Education and Workforce Dilemma

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Governor's Conference on Rural Development. There were a lot of interesting workshops and presentations, all of which touched my heart because of my love for rural Nebraska.

One topic in particular struck a chord because of its implications for the future of Nebraska, our young people, and the nation as a whole. Richard Baier, former director for the Nebraska Department of Economic Development and now the Executive Vice President of the Nebraska State Chamber of Commerce and spearheading their Forging Nebraska's Future project, spoke, among other things, about Nebraska's education and workforce.

According to Richard, 30% of Nebraska's graduating high school seniors don't go on to college. Now here's another statistic Richard quoted: In the near future, 66% of Nebraska's jobs will require a college degree. I'm not exactly sure how the experts would say these statistics fit together, but in my mind, it underscores the fact that we need our high school seniors (at least a portion of them) to graduate high school with a marketable skill because not all of them have the need or desire to go on to college.

Nebraska's vocational education program for high schools is almost non-existent. There isn't even a college in Nebraska that trains teachers to lead a vocational education program. We are doing a disservice to those students who don't have the desire to go on to college, and we are crippling our local communities that need the skills those students have to offer.

In rural Nebraska, laborers, skilled and unskilled, can make a good living. In our rural communities, the local auto mechanic and construction worker live right next door to the local banker, accountant and lawyer. They socialize on an equal playing field - both are vital to the community. Their kids go to the same school. At one time or another they will probably share coaching responsibilities for youth sports. They probably go to the same church. They serve on the same committees.

Many of these skills could be learned in high school, followed by on-the-job training or an apprenticeship program. Or, it could be followed up by a certification program or vocational degree at a local community college.

Unfortunately, this approach is seen as "alternative" to a college education.

If we are going to continue to enjoy the lifestyles that all of America has come to expect - good roads, solid dams and bridges, electricity at the flip of a switch, new homes and businesses with plumbing, hvac systems, solid roofs and walls, we are going to have to accept the fact that skilled and unskilled labor isn't "alternative", it is essential.

Rather than penalize students who are attracted by the prospect of working with their hands by requiring unwanted and unnecessary classes (and the expense that goes along with them - just how much does a degree hour cost at Nebraska's two- and four-year colleges?), we could be preparing them to make a good living at their chosen careers at the time they graduate from high school.

No student loan burdens, no years of waiting before they contribute back to government (local, state and federal) with income taxes, property taxes and sales taxes, AND we, as a society, would benefit from having an adequate workforce to maintain and expand the infrastructure we all depend upon.

Organizations like Mike Rowe Works (yes.. the Dirty Jobs guy), Skills USA, FFA, and a host of other private and public companies and organizations are working to encourage and provide resources for skilled and unskilled laborers. It is past time for Nebraska's educational system to do the same.

There... my soap box stand for the week.

Thanks for stopping by. The coffee is always on.

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