These are lofty goals, and important ones. However, as educators and policymakers strive to improve career and technical education — to change perceptions of vocational training and to make such offerings an increasingly relevant piece of the American economic engine — an opportunity exists to expand career opportunities for women. Initiatives to woo girls into non-traditional fields exist, but they need to become more robust. If the "hard trades" offer high-wage, in-demand jobs, women should have access to them too.
A voc-ed renaissance
LIGHTING THE SPARK Most of the girls the Phoenix interviewed at PATHS said they’d been encouraged to explore vocational training by a family member or a friend.
"They're not the vocational centers that existed 25 years ago," says Dwight Littlefield, of the Maine Department of Education's CTE division, about the state's 27 tech schools, such as PATHS or the Westbrook Regional Vocational Center, which serve self-selecting students for part of every school day. The centers, which are funded through a combination of state education money, tuition reimbursements from "sending schools" (the student's regular high school), and federal grants, are one of Maine's "best-kept secrets," Littlefield says, preparing students for either post-secondary education (an associate's degree or bachelor's degree) or the workforce.
Indeed, the offerings at the tech schools are impressive. Automotive garages hold more than a dozen cars each (most of them donated), on which auto-mechanic and –collision students practice diagnostic and repair work. In the carpentry shops, students build structures in which future electricians and plumbers can hone their own skills. There are backhoes and trucks outside for Heavy Equipment Operation and Commercial Truck Driving courses; and gurneys, mannequins, and medical equipment for those studying health occupations. The kitchens are fully functional; the welding and blacksmithing equipment is exactly what you'd see in a professional shop; and there are live human children in the Early Childhood Education classroom. Courses stress a combination of physical and technical skills.
Interacting with all this state-of-the-art stuff are the kids — teenagers — who choose to leave their "sending school" for a portion of every day in order to attend their regional tech center and acquire skills in specific fields. Their education is extremely hands-on. As PATHS director Michael Johnson, who formerly served as principal of Portland High School, puts it: "These kids want to be here. I don't know how many principals can say that when they walk around their schools, 100 percent of their students are engaged in a meaningful way."
Proponents claim that vocational training expands post-high-school pathways for young men and women.
"For far too long, technical schools have been stigmatized as a place for students with no future when in fact these schools are some of the most valuable assets to a students' success," LePage said in his weekly address on February 18. "Today's job market is demanding more attention from our career and technical education. We are being told by job creators that the skills these schools teach are the tools needed to land a good paying job."