Our Views: For jobs, basic skills

In public education, at least in theory, the college prep curriculum and standards are widely understood and if students don’t always make it to college, the school’s role in preparing them is pretty straightforward.

At least, compared with vocational education. That is the hard part.

Over many years, Louisiana and other states have started ambitious initiatives to make high school graduates job-ready from day one, in a common phrase.

It’s always turned out to be harder than politicians, educators and business owners think it will be.

We are long past the days of woodworking shop and hammers and levels. Society demands more qualified workers with both a high school education and some training beyond that. While Louisiana’s high school graduation rate is slowly getting better, the prospects for students without even a diploma from high school are bleak, even with a dozen high school credits in vocational programs.

The “middle-skill” jobs may demand less than a college degree, but that doesn’t mean those jobs are easy to get and keep without a significant investment of training — and above all literacy and critical thinking skills.

In generations past, as high schools tried to develop vocational programs, the costs of keeping equipment up to date and paying teachers qualified to teach workplace skills was daunting. Today, let’s face it, a high school is rarely going to graduate a software engineer ready for the workplace. Nor a welder, nor a pipefitter.

Any notion that today’s programs can fill the workplace gaps coming during Louisiana’s industrial construction boom over the next few years will be, no pun intended, a pipe dream, because a vocational program simply cannot ramp up in that way, nor can it fill the gaps in basic education overnight.

The schools’ goal should be a student literate enough to learn new skills and responsible enough to undertake life. Again, not an easy challenge for the schools.

So as the state Department of Education and others undertake a new effort to focus on vocational education, we hope that the efforts of the “JumpStart” program are focused on what can realistically be done in schools. More coordination is fine, and a real positive is that Louisiana in recent years expanded technical colleges that can collaborate with high schools on vocational courses. Yet even there we shall see resource constraints, because courses in those schools, or community colleges, are expensive for the same reasons that vocational training in high schools can be difficult to afford on sparse budgets.

We remain enthusiastic about the goal. Yet we should be respectful of the difficulties ahead.