Whatever Happened to Shop Classes in High School?

Years ago when I was a young man going to high school some of my favorite classes were “shop classes.”  The classes I attended during two of my four years at J. Sterling Morton East High School in Cicero, Illinois was Electrical Wiring, Electronics, Woodworking, Plumbing, Welding, Metal Fabrication and Automobile Repair.

I believe shop classes were set up in most high schools back in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  I graduated high school almost 50 years ago in 1969 and I can tell you that in the 60’s Shop Classes were in full swing.  The idea of the Shop Class was to teach those students who were not necessarily “college material” the basics of a trade so that after high school they could get a job or start an apprenticeship in one or more skilled trades.

It was in the 1970’s and 1980’s that these classes started to die out.  I know for a fact that my children did not have many vocational choices when they went to school.  Why?  I have no real idea.  I thought it could have been Labor Unions (such as the teachers union) that may have had something to do with the death of these classes.  After all, the teachers of these classes – for the most part – were not accredited/certified teachers with a teacher’s certificate.  In fact, many of mine had never even gone to college.   They were, themselves, skilled workers.  The welding instructor was a welder.  The woodworking instructor was a carpenter and a cabinet maker, the auto repair instructor was an auto mechanic with certifications from Ford, General Motors and Chrysler … but he was not a certified teacher.  The Electrical Wiring Instructor was an electrician that wired houses on the side.  Therefore, they were not a part of the teachers union or regular members of school faculty.

I was recently reading an article from Forbes Magazine (click on the link to view the article) which talks about the desperate need to bring back vocational training in schools.  This article discusses how in the 1950’s a new philosophy emerged in schools that basically stated students should follow separate educational tracks according to ability.  The idea was that the college bound students would take traditional academic courses along with additional courses in Latin, creative writing, science and math.  As for me – I loved the creative writing but could care less about Latin, Math or Science.  The other track would be for those non-college bound students who would take the basic academic courses (e.g. the 3 R’s … reading, writing and arithmetic) along with vocational training via Shop Classes.

Apparently this “Ability Tracking” did not set well with educators and most parents.  They believed the students were assigned tracks, not by aptitude … but by socio-economic status and race.  Therefore, what was once a perfectly respectable educational path became viewed as a remedial track that restricted minority and working-class students.

Getting back to my story … I took shop classes in my Freshman and Sophomore years of high school.  By the time I reached my Junior year (and was driving my own car) it was time to put some of the skills to work.  I entered the “DO” program.  “DO” stood for “Diversified Occupations.”  In this program you would go to school four hours per day (8:00 AM until Noon) and continue with the 3 R’s course of study.  However, by then some of the R’s had been replaced with other non-needed courses (for a tradesman) like World History and Geography, but I suffered through these.  The remainder of the day (from 1:00 PM to about 4 or 5:00 PM) we would work for someone in one of the trades we had learned in shop class — and we would actually get paid for working.  I worked at Henneman’s Auto Body sanding and masking cars that were going to be painted and was paid a whopping $2.25 per hour.  I did this 4 hours per day, five days per week and would even go in on Saturday for 8 hours.  So, I made $9.00 per day five days a week and $18 on Saturday.  Believe me, $63 per week in 1968 and 1969 was pretty darn good money for a high school brat that hated school but was repulsed by street gangs.  At least I could afford my own dates without having to ask my parents for money or the car (they had very little money and could only afford one car between them).

After High School I went straight into the Army … but that is a story for another article.  America really needs to wake up and understand two basic things.

First of all, people in skilled trades today are growing old and retiring – or worse yet, dying – and they are not being replaced by younger skilled workers.  There are no shop classes at traditional schools and apprenticeships are also coming to a screeching halt.

What is going to happen when all the plumbers, electricians, carpenters, welders, and non-factory auto mechanics are retired, dead and gone?  It will bring the economy to a halt … and it is likely to happen long before the computer geeks of the world can create robots to fulfill the needs of these craftsman.

Second, not everyone – as the Forbes article states – goes to college upon completing high school.  I have a granddaughter that graduated high school two years ago and she is doing well in college.  Her little sister will graduate this year and is struggling with whether she should go to college, a trade school, or go try to find a job.  I pity kids today that don’t know what they want to do when they complete 12 years of school before college age.  Most college grads today have no idea, either, what they want to do when they grow up.  A major failure of our schools is they don’t teach all the kids to plan their futures (that too is a subject of a future article).

According to the Forbes Article that was written just three years ago we find this:

The latest figures from the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 68% of high school students attend college.  That means that over 30% graduate with neither academic or job skills.

It goes on to state that of the 68% that start college – almost 40% don’t complete it.  Hey, that translates to a lot of waste … Time, Money and burdensome student debt.  Of the ones who do complete college, fully 1/3rd will work in jobs they could have gotten without a 4-year college degree.  The article states that 37% of college graduates are doing work for which only a high school degree is required.

Yes, there are studies that show college graduates earn more in a lifetime than high school graduates … but many of these studies are flawed.  One study found that 53% of college graduates are either unemployed or under-employed.  Also when you compare the incomes of college grads to those of high school grads with vocational training working in skilled jobs – the income of non-college grads looks much better than the average college grad; and the non-college grad is working in a field for which they were trained.  How many college grads actually work in a field that college supposedly prepared them for?

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am not against college or the college graduate.  Most of my children have some college and one of them not only has her doctorate … she is also employed by the college where she attained it.  I am very proud of the kids for taking the time to go to college – even those that did not finish.  I am also proud of the fact that I did not encourage any of my children to attend or not attend college.  I raised them (well actually my wife did more of that than I did) to make their own decisions about their futures; and so far it appears as though they have all made some pretty good ones.

What I am against is schools, states and the Federal Government forcing our youth today to prepare for college at the high school level when many of them are not college material.  Many of them should be studying and learning the trades so that the older workers in those trades can one day be replaced by another with their skills just like doctors, lawyers and professors are replaced by people who have their skill set.

The last paragraph of the Forbes article reads like this — and I totally agree with it:

Just a few decades ago, our public education system provided ample opportunities for young people to learn about careers in manufacturing and other vocational trades. Yet, today, high-schoolers hear barely a whisper about the many doors that the vocational education path can open. The “college-for-everyone” mentality has pushed awareness of other possible career paths to the margins. The cost to the individuals and the economy as a whole is high. If we want everyone’s kid to succeed, we need to bring vocational education back to the core of high school learning.

I believe giving kids skills with which they can use their hands will also lessen their need to belong to street gangs and do other activities that can bring harm to people in the name of MONEY NEEDED.

I’d like to hear/read your thoughts on this subject.

Thanks,

Jerry Nix

 

2 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Shop Classes in High School?

  1. Printer Plumlee

    Jerry,

    Great article and one that also takes me back a few years. I too have wondered the same thing, whatever happened to teaching our children how to change a tire, use a skil saw or wire a light fixture.

    Seeing that today’s schools were remiss in this I actually began mini lessons at home with my 3 sons.

    It makes you ask what our society will look like going forward without simple training in simple household chores.

    Thanks Jerry

    Like

    1. Printer, yes I was really upset when I’d read that shop classes were dying off. I learned a lot from shop classes … if nothing more I learned that I really was not cut out for college. Now I’m finding out that they no longer teach penmanship, nor have in several years, in schools today. It’s all about the keyboard. When I ask my grandkids to sign their name all I get is a printed name. How in the hell does the schools expect them to sign a check if they can’t sign their name. Oh that’s right … checks are a thing of the past as well for most X, Y and Zers. Have a great day! Jerry

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s