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.


Jerry Nix


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

  1. Printer Plumlee


    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

    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

      1. Robert Donley

        Honestly, even those that are college material have the potential to benefit from a shop class. Like those going on to become engineers would benefit from knowing how what they design will be manufactured and those becoming accountants would benefit from knowing a little about the industries they’re going to be keeping the books for (so their less likely to become bean counters). That and not everyone is a book learner. These college prep courses are designed with book learners in mind, and they really exclude those that are like kinetic learners. I can do both, but I’m an anomaly I’m that regard. If they were to put out a machine shop class though, they could teach algebra (calculating speeds and feeds), geometry, trigonometry (measuring parts to spec), and maybe even a little calculus; in a way that a kinetic learner can understand, even if they don’t end up using it in their future careers.

      2. Robert Donnely you made some very good points. With your permission I will use them when and if I update the article. I agree with you on every point. Actually though there are three types of learning styles … visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Our schools today tend to focus on only visual sometimes and auditory all the time … rarely do they use kinetic anymore. What a shame! So many are missing out. One responder told me by age 10 he was able to use a micrometer … very few college grads (even engineering) have no idea what one is today! Thanks for reading and commenting on my atticle.

  2. Crystal

    Budget cuts!! Many times when a class dies out it’s largely due to not having the finances. When Walker cut our budget the first time the first to go were specials. Less phy ed time, home economics, French/German class (now we only offer Spanish). Trust me TEACHERS WANT that class back along with Home Economics. Our school doesn’t have anything like that class anymore.

    1. Crystal, thanks for reading my article (Whatever Happened to Shop Classes in High School?) and commenting on it. I agree to an extent that budgets and mismanagement of finances at the school level may have had something to do with cutting the shop classes. However, I still contend that the largest hurdle was Teachers Unions and the fact that the shop teachers (Auto Mechanics, Welding, Electronics, Electrical, Masonry, Photography, etc) was being taught by skilled instructor and not certified teachers. The Unions, back when I was in highschool (1965 – 1969) did not like this and wanted all teachers to have a teaching certification from college and many of these skilled instructors refused to go back to school so they lost their jobs to teachers who really knew nothing about the skill they were to teach. Therefore, when budget cuts came into focus … yes the shop classes were first to go. Keep reading and commenting … I do appreciate it — Jerry Nix

    1. Stephanie, thanks for reading my article “Whatever Happened to Shop Classes in High School” and agreeing with it. I’ve found a lot of people interested in that article. I am hoping that soon these will be back in many of the high schools around the country … but we parents will likely have to DEMAND it. Lord knows the politicians won’t.

  3. Otto Masek

    Hi Jerry,

    As a graduate Morton High School(when there was only one Morton High School in Cicero,IL), I remember the quality of the vocational courses offered. The Machine Shop course(also known as Vocational) was so detailed, that Seniors graduating were highly pursued on the front steps of the school by GM-Willow Springs,IL plant for their Tool and Die makers positions.

    When the Willow Springs plant closed on a Friday, the Tool and Die makers were recruited to start that following Monday at GM-Electro-Motive in McCook,IL. Highly regarded employees that got their capabilities because of the Vocational training.

    Bring back Vocational Training into our high schools!

    1. Otto, thanks so much for your comments. I am glad to hear that you also attended Morton in Cicero. Great school in my opinion though I worked so much I had few friends there. Also interesting that you are familiar with Willow Springs. I went to Willow Springs Elementary school in the 6th, 7th and 8th grade before the family moved to Cicero with put me in Morton (EAST) at the time. I do totally agree … we need vocational training (shop classes) in High School now days. Too many old tradesmen dying off and not being replaced.

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    1. I want to thank you for referencing my article about shop class in school. I hope your readers enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed wrting it. I have subscribed to your blog site and am looking forward to reading a lot of yours. I hope you will allow me to reference them form time to time as well.

  7. Gary Miller

    Great article but it left out one very critical, at least in California, piece of the puzzle. The PhDs and Edds, in both the State Department of Education and public high schools successfully prevailed with their goal of raising student achievement by preparing every high school student to meet the entry requirements for Stanford or any other private or California State University. Great for high school grads, their parents, and the careers and salaries of public school administrators. Because of the State’s University entry requirements most elective classes and nonacademic programs were simply eliminated. Never mind the majority of our high school graduates never entered the State University system as most lacked the funds, were not proficient in the English language, or lacked the required grades. Most of the students who did not graduate from high school conveniently dropped out and became a vague statistic of young adults for whom the schools were trying to develop “outreach programs” to open up additional educational opportunities. However, unless a grant came along there were never funds nor strong desires to make something happen. If asked we usually pointed to the community colleges and mumbled things about their recruitment efforts for adults that did not graduate or pass a G.E.D. Exam.

    1. Gary Miller, thank you so much for reading my article and responding to it. This article, by far, has gained more attention than any other article I’ve written since I started this blog about 4 years ago. What you said about California is probably true in most states … but we all know that California is the “Trend Setting” state of states in America – be it a good trend or a bad one. Here in the south (Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee) from what I understand they are starting to slowly bring back shop classes and vocational schools. However, at 72 years of age with no kids in school Locally I cannot verify that as factual. I do have some grandkids in school that are not college material and they don’t mention to me about shop classes being offered – though the school aged grandkids are all girls. The boys (who live in Florida) are still to young for school. I do pray that we either bring back shop classes or the “Military Draft” to give the future generations of this country a chance if they cannot go to college because of academic grades or lack of funding. Be well, and thanks again for reading.

    2. Mr. Miller – thanks so much for your enlightening comments. I agree with you and am sorry that it has taken this long to get back to you. I normally catch these earlier, but must have missed tis one.

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  10. Manuel Varela

    Why does it have to be to learn a trade to make a living? I woodwork sometimes for fun or necessity. I learned plumbing as a lad before I went to college. I never call a plumber. How about the sense of pride and accomplishment felt when creating something with your bare hands? There are many reasons home economics and shop classes should be included in public education.

    1. Manuel,
      I could not agree with you more. The only reason I mention to make money is because so many of our kids who probably should not be pushed into college are while our tradesmen and women are dying off. Thanks for reading my article.

  11. Charity Thompson

    I am a school counselor at a private HS in Tampa, FL. I would like to start a woodworking class at our school but I’m not sure how to go about doing that. Can you give me some insight as to what is needed in the way of tools and materials as well as what kind of background the instructor should have? Any help you can give would be appreciated!

    1. Dear Mr/Ms Thompson, I am a writer not a carpenter or cabinet maker. While I took woodshop for a semester in high school that was ages, like 56 years, ago. My recommendation would be one of two options. Find a school that has such a class and discuss it with them. Or better yet, contact both a carpenter and a cabinet maker (they are not the same) and find out from them what tools they would recommend for your classes. As for an instructor, if it is a school that has a union any would have to be preapproved and probably require a teachers certification. However, when I was in school our instructors actually worked in the trade or had worked in the trade and did not necessarily have a teaching certificate and many probably had no college. In this case … you may want to discuss it with your school management and/or school board and see, first, what they would require. If a teachers certification is required then you would want to interview teachers that perhaps had a background in woodworking. If a teachers certificate is not required then I would hit up junior colleges and vocational schools that teach woodworking and see if you can find someone or at least get references to some people to interview for the position.

      I do appreciate your reading my article and taking interest enough to get a class started in your school. I wish more teachers would get proactive in helping bring back the trades that are so desperately needed in America.

      Jerry Nix | Freewavemaker, LLC

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