Algebra II or welding?

 States are dropping college-prep-for-all requirements  in a school standards rebellion, writes Stephanie Simon on Politico

Florida students no longer need chemistry, physics or Algebra II to graduate from high school. Texas just scrapped its Algebra II requirement. And Washington state has dropped its foreign language mandate.

. . . They’re letting teens study welding instead of Spanish, take greenhouse management in place of physics and learn car repair instead of muddling over imaginary numbers.

The college-for-all idea is elitist, say career-tech proponents. With rising college debt and more film studies graduates working as bartenders, there’s growing interest in “middle skill” technical jobs. 

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been talking up vocational education recently, but they want all students to have college-level skills, writes Simon. “Especially worrisome” is “the risk that low-income and minority students, as well as children with disabilities, could be pushed into the vocational tracks.”

New Mexico state Rep. Mimi Stewart, a Democrat, has introduced a bill to drop the Algebra II graduation requirement. “We are supposed to be doing college and career readiness, not college and college readiness,” Stewart said.

Indiana State Rep. Wendy McNamara, a Republican, wants to design a vocational diploma with input from local employers.

College prep has crowded out vocational options, argue The Jobs for Texas Coalition. “For 20 years, we’ve been ratcheting up the rigor required to get out of high school, and we started to see unintended consequences,” said Mike Meroney, a spokesman for the coalition.

Letting kids opt out of college prep doesn’t mean they’ll spend a lifetime flipping burgers, Meroney said. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists two dozen fast-growing occupations that don’t require higher education and pay $35,000 to $55,000 a year, including heavy equipment operator and car mechanic. “What is the real purpose of education if not to prepare your students for jobs?” Meroney said. “Seriously. That’s what we keep asking.”

While Texas has dropped the Algebra II requirement, Minnesota and Connecticut are phasing in Algebra II mandates, writes Simon. 

New York set new college-ready benchmarks, but won’t expect graduates to be college ready till 2022. Louisiana is aiming for 2025.

Go to college or take an energy job?

Some Montana teens are choosing high-paying jobs in the booming energy industry over college, reports the New York Times from the town of Sidney.  It’s a “risky” decision, opines the Times. What if the oil and gas drilling boom is shut down by environmental regulation?

. . .  with unemployment at more than 12 percent nationwide for young adults and college tuition soaring, students here on the snow-glazed plains of eastern Montana said they were ready to take their chances.

“I just figured, the oil field is here and I’d make the money while I could,” said Tegan Sivertson, 19, who monitors pipelines for a gas company, sometimes working 15-hour days. “I didn’t want to waste the money and go to school when I could make just as much.”

Less than a year after proms and homecoming games, teenagers like Mr. Sivertson now wake at 4 a.m. to make the three-hour trek to remote oil rigs. They fish busted machinery out of two-mile-deep hydraulic fracturing wells and repair safety devices that keep the wells from rupturing . . .

One  high school senior makes $24 an hour as a cashier in Williston, N.D., the epicenter of the boom. She plans to work for a few years, save her money and move to Denver.

In eastern Montana, counselors say “more and more students were interested in working for at least a year after graduation and getting technical training instead of a four-year degree.”

Last year, one-third of the graduating seniors at Sidney High School headed off to work instead of going to college or joining the military, a record percentage. Some found work making deliveries to oil rigs, doing construction and repairing machinery. Others decided to first seek training as welders or diesel mechanics, which pay more than entry-level jobs.

Meanwhile, enrollment at Dawson Community College in Glendive, about an hour from Sidney, has fallen to 225 students from 446 just a few years ago, as fewer local students pursue two-year degrees.

People are moving to the energy belt in search of jobs at good wages, but even more jobs are expected.

Shay Findlay found a job repairing drilling pumps the day after he was graduated from high school. At 19, he earns $40,000 a year and enjoys his work. His friends are home from college for Christmas break with “stories of dorm-room dramas and drunken scuffles with campus police officers,” reports the Times.  “They’re going to have to come back and look for work,” he said. “And there’s nothing but oil fields over here.”

Who’s taking the risk? Findlay’s party-hearty friends are very likely to drop out of college owing money. Honor-roll students with the ability and motivation to earn a degree — petroleum engineering pays very, very well — will benefit from going straight to university. But that’s not who’s earning a welding certificate or working as repairmen, drivers and cashiers.

The New York Times is worried about the risk to the “college-industrial complex,” writes Heather Mac Donald. “Too many high-school graduates are reflexively going to college as it is, without a clue what they are doing there or how to take advantage of higher education.” They aren’t studying the great ideas of Western civilization, she writes. Most will “double major in communications and binge drinking.”

Skills gap is small, but growing

The “skills gap” — a shortage of skilled trades workers — is no big deal now — but it could be in the future, as baby boomers retire. The average high-skilled manufacturing worker in the U.S. is 56 years old.

Welding requires math and science skills that most job applicants don’t have, says a CEO whose company up-armors Humvees.

Career paths for remedial students

A Houston community college is linking low-level remedial students to career paths, while a South Dakota technical college sets different requirements for each job training program, virtually eliminating remedial education.

Need a job? Welding is hot.

Making it in America

Manufacturing is coming back in the U.S., after a precipitous decline, writes Adam Davidson in the new Atlantic. However, manufacturing workers are divided between the highly skilled, who are in demand, and the quickly trained, who must work cheaply or be replaced by machines or Chinese labor.

Learn welding, get a job.

Welding for greatness

Jay Leno promotes careers in welding.

Wanted: skilled trades workers

As boomer workers near retirement, employers are partnering with community colleges to train a new generation of skilled trades workers. But many young people don’t realize there are opportunities in manufacturing, plumbing, construction and other blue-collar fields. Welding, seen as dirty and dangerous, is trying to market itself as noble, stable and lucrative. West Virginia needs steelworkers.