Trade Schools Get National Scrutiny

March 15th, 2010

A week ago, I wrote about "Public Versus Private Colleges" and noted how I anticipated that many people would enroll in schools to bolster skills because of the weak economy. On March 13, the NY Times ran a lengthy article headlined, "The New Poor: In Hard Times, Lured Into Trade School and Debt." Then in today's Advertiser op-ed pages, there was an interesting piece about the need for vocational training in Hawaii's high schools. (Links at end of post.)

In my blog post I questioned whether the traditional four-year liberal arts college approach was adequately preparing graduates for jobs in the real world. I admitted I was skeptical of for-profit colleges and trade schools, but after visiting Heald and interviewing both administrators and graduates, came away with a positive impression of what they had to offer. In the comments section, I also mentioned how there used to be vocational high schools back in New Jersey when I was living there in the 1970s.

The NYT article focused on ITT Technical Institute, the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, and online college programs like Phoenix University. It didn't refer to Heald or Remington, the two for-profit colleges that are best known in Hawaii. According to the Times, a huge chunk of the tuition payments are being made through federal loans and Pell grants for lower income people. What's alarming is many graduates are not finding decent jobs, which means the loans will never be repaid... and yes, the taxpayers ultimately get stuck with the debt.

However, in the NYT comments section, many readers pointed out that you could make the same statements about public colleges and elite private universities. All schools say the key to getting better paying jobs is education. But there are no guarantees that getting a degree from UH or Harvard, while racking up debt on college loans, will necessarily result in landing the job you hoped for. You still have to put in the work, and get experience somewhere.

Let me be clear about one thing: Heald is NOT an online diploma mill. Their instructors take great pride in working closely with students and providing hands-on training. What's distressing about the NYT comments were online college teachers who said they were told to pass everyone, or they would be fired. So, caveat emptor -- let the buyer beware. The same goes for massage and culinary schools that promise more than they can deliver. As one commenter wrote, you can learn more about cooking by asking to assist in a top restaurant kitchen for free, rather than pay $40,000 to take classes from a mediocre chef. Learn by doing, in other words.

Which brings me to the Advertiser op-ed piece by David S. Matsumoto, a retired Japan Airlines regional exec. He presents a good case for making vocational education a bigger part of Hawaii's high school curriculum. As my wife pointed out, in Japan you were expected to do long apprenticeships before you became a sushi master or swordmaker. In this country, people used to become apprentices too before hanging up their carpenter or plumber shingle... now it's Donald Trump who has turned apprenticeships into a reality TV show gimmick. Sigh.

What do you think? Is it time we go back to some of the old ways to better prepare young people for the jobs that are in demand today?

Today's relevant links:

NY Times article on trade schools (comments at bottom worth reading too).

Advertiser commentary on vocational training.

My prior blog post on public versus private colleges. link for show times and YouTube Channel videos.

5 Responses to “Trade Schools Get National Scrutiny”

  1. Scott:

    Very interesting Rich. I think much of the working life is sales and self-promotion. In this small town I live in, I see so many people from landscapers to accountants competing for business, yet offering (roughly) the same product. I stand by my assertion that a business, marketing, communication degree is a great degree to obtain because it trains a person to be well rounded and think logically and critically. The trade schools largely do not. Anybody can learn how to cook, hammer a nail, but it's the person who can convince you to give them your business that will come out successful.

  2. Rich Figel:

    Hmm... but would you rather have a cook who made great food, or one that was mediocre at cooking and good at marketing? Eg., look at the big chain restaurants: they create nice-looking ads and commercials, but then you go there and the food is just so-so...

    And as far as trades such as carpenters or hair-stylists, isn't the best advertising word of mouth from satisfied customers?

    As a professional copywriter, I agree it's useful to have writing and planning skills that can be learned in college. But honestly, the best training for a writer is doing it in a professional setting with experienced professionals as your mentors.

    Another point: why does UH do such a lousy job of marketing its sport programs to its own students, when they have a business school and students who are supposed to be learning about advertising and marketing? Why don't UH business professors roll up their sleeves and work with their students to create better marketing/promotion campaigns to increase student and non-student support of both athletic and academic programs?

    The answer: It's not my job. That's my main gripe about the public college system and many government employees in general. Maybe it's a union thing, or just symptomatic of our society these days that people do the minimum required, yet expect annual raises for just showing up.

  3. Michael:

    I think joining the Military in Army, Marines or Navy which offer technical skills and one gets paid for learning. Combat Engineers. SeeBees.
    One goes in for 20 years at age 18 and retire at 38 or continue on with 30 years service and retire at 48. Why pay for an education, learn how on the job.

    Still young enough to work or continue their education. One can also go to college and become an Officer in Engineering or technical fields. One learns a skill and the discipline to run their own business.

    I think this is the best offer, if one can handle the hardship of Military.

  4. Rich Figel:

    Michael -

    You raise a good point, which I just brought up in an email reply to a reader who prefers not to post public comments... I think we should have a National Service program that high school grads would have to sign up for to do two years either in the military or public service programs to help the poor and disadvantaged in some way.

    Then in exchange for the two years of service, give them tuition assistance or credits for real life work experience. In those two years, they might get a better idea of what they want to do in life, and that would make them better students if they chose to go into college.

    As it is now, how many high school grads enter college as "undecided" about what they want to major in or do for a living?

    But, yes, the military does provide a good option for getting an education... provided you don't get shipped off to the Middle East or some other war you didn't sign up for.

  5. Michael:

    They have a so called Draft in Israel. Men and women both serve 2 years. They train in different fields and some make it a career. Living in Israel or Irag where life is a daily battle.

    Why Middle East or some other war, there is a War right in our backyard? May not be terrorist but gangs, robbers etc. We sit as if in Peace but right here is a War going on. Unemployment is a War. Furlough Fridays. This is what I define War. Business is War.

    Many major in a field only to end up doing a different job. Education gives you the basics to do things in an organized manner. To solve, fix and invent. Yet education can also corrupt. Swindlers are educated. Ponzi was educated.