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EDITORIAL: Vocational education finally making big strides

While the nation’s public schools in recent decades have emphasized college preparation, Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” fame has been preaching the gospel of vocational education. His efforts may be paying off.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that enrollment in vocational training programs has soared recently as many institutions of higher education struggle to attract high school graduates. The number of students opting to attend “vocational-focused community colleges rose 16 percent last year,” while the number of students entering the construction trades jumped 23 percent.

“It’s a really smart route for kids who want to find something and aren’t gung-ho about going to college,” a 20-year-old would-be welder told the paper.

The nation has a shortage of workers in many trades, including plumbing, welding and electrical work. This is driving up wages and creating financial opportunities for young adults who prefer not to go to the classroom route. Workers in many of these professions enjoy significant job security and can earn six figures annually.

None of this will be any surprise to Mr. Rowe, who for years has been touting such a career path as a viable alternative to higher education. In February, he visited Western High School in Las Vegas to announce a $4.5 million scholarship program — funded by the Engelstad Foundation — for students who pursue a career in the trades after graduation.

Mr. Rowe reiterated his criticism of the idea that “one path is the best path for the most people,” adding that “there’s nothing wrong with” getting a college degree, “but it’s awfully expensive.”

Mr. Rowe also has his own organization — the Mike Rowe Works Foundation — which provides scholarships to “hardworking men and women who will keep the lights on, water running and air flowing — people who will show up early, stay late, and bust their asses to get the job done.”

There are alternatives and consequences to going deep into debt to earn a four-year degree — a degree that may not even give a graduate many employment opportunities. Indeed, the Journal reported in February that “roughly half of college graduates end up in jobs where their degrees aren’t needed, and that underemployment has lasting implications for workers’ earnings.”

With college tuition costs soaring and student loan debt at a staggering $1.7 trillion, Mr. Rowe is spot on in highlighting that we do students a disservice by not emphasizing the value of options other than college. It’s vital that school districts — including those in Nevada — keep expanding opportunities for students to embark upon such career paths.

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