During my college years, I spent a lot of time with two plumbers named Mario and Luigi. But, like many of my peers who enjoyed hanging out with the two Nintendo video game superstars, I didn't see their careers as something prestigious, nor something to aspire to. Even nowadays with so many people hunting for work, government economists predict that over the next decade we'll have faster than average job growth for plumbers—and a good many other "trade" professions—but we often still look down upon vocational careers. Can't you just hear modern parents saying, "You want to be a plumber (or insert any vocational job)? You can do better than that." But it's time for us to get over our snobbery, especially with the economy being what it is. It turns out that Brazil is making a serious investment in vocational education, and their approach is one we can learn from.
Brazil had to tackle vocational education head-on since their growing oil and gas industries have increased demand for "skilled professionals, including welders, electricians, builders, and information-technology specialists." There's also been a boom in infrastructure projects so that "roads, airports, stadiums and accommodations will be ready for the 2016 Olympics and the 2014 World Cup." So over the past decade, the Brazilian government has boosted vocational education funding from $385 million to $3.8 billion. Except—and this is important when worrying about career prestige—they don't call it vocational education anymore. Brazil calls it "professional" education, and the schools are called technical institutes.
The number of these government-funded technical institutes has tripled to 401, and nearly 150 more will open by 2015. Because Brazil has done such a good job connecting the institutes to job needs, enrollment in them has also increased sharply, from 102,000 students in 2002 to 401,000 today. And, instead of isolating seekers of professional education from everyone else, Brazil has smartly set up the institutes to "offer everything from basic education to graduate courses and doctorates in professional areas." That means, for example, that people who want to be math teachers can attend a technical institute, right alongside people studying to be plumbers. And, if someone starts out taking technical courses, they can easily switch to a degree program.
This kind of thing could happen at our community colleges. Our politicians certainly talk about their importance in the economy, all the while defunding them. Still, people who hope to be plumbers already take math classes at community colleges alongside people hoping to transfer to a four-year university. But our society tends to put kids on either a college or career (code word for vocational) track and that tends to break down according to class status.
I asked a friend who works as a web designer what he thought about vocational education. He told me that schools like DeVry are where the poor kids go. That has to change: while it's true that our employment projections show that 60 percent of jobs in the next seven years will require some college, that doesn't necessarily mean a four-year degree. Just as Brazil has had to embrace vocational education to meet the needs of its economy, we're going to need to get over our elitism and do the same.