The News Journal editorial board recently called for making Delaware a place where every student “has a fair shot at higher education.” Delaware’s elites responded with a call for more vocational education and many more construction workers. But in their demand for a focus on trades, are they really creating a system with different postsecondary expectations and options for low-income and minority students in Delaware?

In a state where about half of Delaware’s third graders struggle to read and 40 percent of high school graduates need remedial college classes, we have been told over the recent weeks –  sans any credible employment data – that “9000 Delaware students are on a path toward a good job.” With resumes that include education at Colgate University, Harvard Kennedy School, Stanford, Cornell University, and Salisbury State College, leaders of Delaware’s construction industry told us “not everyone needs college to get a good job” and promoted opportunities in their industry. But as enticing as the salaries for boilermaker, pipefitter, and heavy equipment operator may be, if we are being honest, rich folks –and those leading the charge for vocational education– are not preparing their children for those jobs.

Whether consciously or not, the wealthy and privileged in our society prepare their children for opportunities that protect and build upon their family wealth, social status, and societal influence. From The Montessori preschool experiences for their toddlers to the decisions to spend thousands each year on private school, these parents are able to ensure their children have competitive advantages. The decisions to move into affluent neighborhoods with access to amazing public schools, the trips abroad, and the cadre of paid supports (tutors, coaches, college admissions consultants, etc.) that maintain their children’s merit are not about preparing their children for “low to middle-skill careers.” In fact, their preparation is not even about college. It is about ensuring their children have the academic aptitude, the vast networks, the non-cognitive skills, and diverse talents to win and have options in a rapidly-evolving, globalized world.  

To be clear, the opportunities in the construction industry are good, noble, valuable jobs that are necessary for Delaware to progress and prosper. And we are right to make every effort to provide innovative course offerings that help students develop marketable and practical skills. But we should ask ourselves why these are not the opportunities Delaware’s elites envision as the return on their considerable investments for their own children’s education and future.

You would be hard-pressed to find Delaware’s elite private schools preparing students for careers in culinary arts, HVAC, or early childhood education. To the extent that such courses are offered, they are a novelty and an accouterment students can leverage alongside their portfolio of academic accomplishments. It is a both/and proposition for families with abundant resources and not the either/or experience we have accepted in an education system designed to maintain social and economic status.

I am also not preparing my child for construction work because –beyond outlier cases– it is not the surest path to social and economic mobility for my family and community. It is not the best path to help close the racial wealth gap — where the median black family has just $1,700 in wealth, the median Latino family has just $2,000 in wealth, and the White median household wealth is $116,800. Our college-for-some approach is not how we are going to increase access and diversify decision-making in a country where people of color are underrepresented in state legislatures, in Congress, in the judicial system, in STEM fields, among physicians and surgeons, and in the education sector (where 94 percent of school superintendents and 88 percent of state education commissioners and state superintendents of education are white).

That is why my mother insisted that I complete college and pursue advanced degrees. Because for her (like hundreds of the out-privileged families my wife and I have worked with over the last decade), the goal was for me to do better financially, in a less physically-taxing manner, with less career volatility and vulnerabilities, and more access and opportunities than she ever experienced. She recognized that times had changed from when she worked her way from a job as a “word-processor” (exhibit A in how technology makes certain trades unnecessary) to Director-level roles in Human Resources without a college degree.

Those who are promoting vocational education and low to middle-skill careers for other people’s children should also recognize times are changing. All students will need the strong academic content understanding, suite of transferable skills, and diverse interdisciplinary intellectual exposure to be able to win in a knowledge economy with increased automation and global competition. It is no surprise that millions of jobs were lost during the financial crisis in construction and manufacturing. Some reports predict another 500,000 jobs will be at risk in the construction industry by 2020 due to automation.

This means that while the efforts underway in Delaware to create closer alignment between the K-12 education system and workforce needs are noteworthy, they are incomplete. In the “age of agility,” the logic where “a single specialized skill or degree once led to enduring value and longevity in the workforce” has become less sound.

We must be careful not to overfit our students to the present needs of industry at the expense of preparing them as adaptable, lifelong learners. Students’ passions and proclivities will lead them down a diverse set of paths in the workforce. Let’s just make sure they all have the foundation and preparation to make real choices about their path to prosperity. If we are honest, that’s what the most affluent and privileged among us do for their kids.

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7 thoughts on “Rich folks aren’t preparing their kids for construction jobs

  1. I totally disagree. You are a smart guy so I suggest you reconsider your point of view on this subject by visiting trade schools and vo-tech schools in New Castle County or Williamson Free Trade School in PA. Walk the halls of Delaware vocational schools and you will run into wealthy alumni business owners desperately trying to attract workers to fill jobs that pay more out of high school than a college student could expect after graduation. Votech Alumni like Rich Sobieski and Mike Peet of Modern Controls who have high school/vo-tech careers and have been able to start businesses without the burden of college debt. The average millionaire next door is not a doctor or a lawyer who tend to spend what they earn or more. The average millionaire is a small business person or tradesperson often without a post secondary education. The primary role of most colleges is creating more educators not preparing students for work/life experience.

    1. John, thanks for your comments. I have visited several of our vocational schools and worked with students attending these schools. I do not yet see the transformative impact you’re talking about happening at scale at these schools. I have heard a lot of great anecdotes and outliers (similar to the ones you have shared above). Do you have hard data (similar to what we see with Zip Code Wilmington) about the career placement and earnings of the alums of these programs? Likewise, can you point me to your source for the claim that “The average millionaire is a small business person or tradesperson often without a post secondary education?” I would also like to see the evidence that people of color are more likely to become wealthy as tradespeople and small business owners without college degrees.

  2. By the numbers….these figures are for high school graduates. Often technical school students graduate high school to jobs and their associates degrees are paid for by their employers. Traditional four year college is the most expensive place in the world to figure out what you want to do. Colleges like DSU have 35% graduation rates and the students end up saddled with debt and nothing to show for it.

    Below are the mean hourly/annual wages for several types of automotive technicians:

    Automotive service technicians and mechanics: $19.90/hour, $41,400/year

    Bus/truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists: $22.45/hour, $46,710/year

    Farm equipment mechanics and service technicians: $18.90/hour, $39,310/year

    Heavy-equipment mechanics (cranes, bulldozers, etc.): $24.43/hour, $50,810/year

    Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

    1. Thanks for this. But these numbers do not support your claim that “The average millionaire is a small business person or tradesperson often without a post secondary education.” There’s so much more than starting salary that I am discussing here that you have not addressed. We are not going to counteract the deep disparities and lack of access to power/decision-making that I have discussed just by getting more low income and minority students into the types of jobs you have presented above. You are also going to make them much more vulnerable in an age of automation that is upon us. Is that not the case?

  3. I do not have the statistics for New Castle County Votech Distict but according to Tony Gillespie head of the Lancaster Technical High School Foundation 50% of their students are from “financially distressed” backgrounds and they have 95% positive job placement rate in their trade and within one year students are making 2x their teachers salaries. I am planning on visiting the Lancaster school and it would be great if you could join me.

    1. Happy to visit the school. But it is telling that you praised NCCVT and suggested I reconsider my “point of view on this subject” without any evidence that NCCVT is generating transformative outcomes for students at scale.

  4. I think part of the problem is that we do not value construction jobs in the same way that we value academic education or extremely successful businessmen, even those who did not complete a four-year degree (e.g., Steve Jobs, Bill Gates). I wonder if the primary solution is to encourage under-represented groups to pursue college education in hopes that they will suddenly have the opportunity to join the elite ranks. If we only teach our youth how to be successful within an oppressive system, are we not just encouraging them to perpetuate the very system that held them back? The ideal situation would provide the same opportunities for students of color and the rich, so they could choose their professions and still be able to make great financial achievements. Presently, there are trades that offer salaries that are competitive with professions that require four-year degrees. What is the real problem with choosing a trade over a college degree? When we answer that and find a way to change that answer, we might be able to make progress. I know that college isn’t the best option for everyone. However, it should at least be an option for everyone, and I do agree with you that we should not usher our students of color towards vocational fields as though that is their only option.

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