President Barack Obama was in Prince George's County today to tout a new $7 million federal initiative to expand programs that help high school graduates prepare for jobs in the region. In a state whose prosperity depends on a highly educated workforce, Maryland needs to distinguish itself not only for the quality of the young people it sends off to college but also for producing students who are prepared to succeed in the workplace as soon as they graduate from high school.
Despite the emphasis on raising academic standards and making higher education more widely available, not every student is ready for college immediately after high school. In many European countries, such as Germany and Finland, secondary schools sponsor extensive apprenticeship programs with local businesses so that students who don't plan on pursuing higher education right away (or at all) can receive the kind of practical training that employers in fields like nursing, pharmacy and manufacturing are looking for. The system is designed to help ensure that when newly minted high school graduates earn a diploma there's a job already waiting for them.
Bladensburg High School and two other Prince George's County secondary schools were among 24 winners nationally that have been awarded a total of $107 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Labor to fund programs that connect their graduates with local employers. At Bladensburg High, for example, the money will help fund health and bioscience programs that allow students to earn certifications in nursing and pharmacy as well as college credits from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Mr. Obama's appearance in Maryland to announced the grants was an example of the president using his bully pulpit to urge states to do more to help young people prepare for the work world even if they aren't college bound. In doing so he's recasting for contemporary use an idea that had its roots in the beginnings of the industrial age, namely that high schools should offer students the opportunity to learn a trade that enables them to support themselves and their families as productive members of society.
Though the skills demanded by employers are often significantly different and more complex than they once were, the idea that vocational education is a necessary function of high schools is as relevant today as it was a century ago. Over the last four decades American workers have seen millions of manufacturing jobs disappear overseas as businesses sought to boost profits by employing low-wage workers in developing countries in Asia and elsewhere. But as those nations' living standards have risen, so have wages, making the difference between labor costs there and in the U.S. less of a factor in employers' decisions about where to locate new plants. As such, there has been a trend toward restoring manufacturing here — but it is generally the kind of high-tech manufacturing that requires workers with more than basic skills and training.
Similarly, high tech fields like biosciences and information technology have openings for workers with specialized skills but with less than bachelor's or post-graduate degrees. Young graduates who don't go on college can gain valuable work experience, contacts and other important benefits that allow them to make their way in the world and plan for the future if they have a solid grounding in those skills after graduating from high school.
Mr. Obama's initiative should serve as a wake-up call to the state's school districts that it's not enough to just send the cream of their graduating classes off to college. They've also got to do what is necessary to make sure every kid has a chance to succeed even if higher education isn't in the picture right away. The best way to do that is to develop the kind of programs and partnerships with business that lead to gainful employment the day after graduation.
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