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Vocational Education Too Narrow, Experts Say

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St Louis--Vocational educators can no longer afford to train students for careers in one occupation only, because advances in technology are changing the nature of work in many occupations and making others obsolete, according to speakers at the American Vocational Association's conference here last week.

"The paradox of 10 million unemployed workers is that millions of jobs go unfilled because of a shortage of skilled workers," a speaker, Clifton Bardsley, told vocational educators at their national conference here last week.

And that, in turn, he added, is affecting the nation's productivity rate.

"The workforce is not being trained in the proper areas," said Mr. Bardsley, a personnel manager for the McDonnell-Douglas Corporation. ''Without a solid education program, the problem of productivity cannot be solved."

The issues raised by Mr. Bardsley were very much on the minds of nearly 7,000 vocational-education teachers and administrators who gathered here for the vocational group's 76th annual meeting. In one panel after another, the participants struggled with the broad question of how profes-sionals in vocational education can best cope with the changing workforce needs of a technological society.

"Our problem is changing technology. The era of research and development is bringing about new techniques," Mr. Bardsley said. In the past, there was plenty of lead time to react to changes, he added, but technology is now changing so rapidly that "the reaction must be very swift, and we simply haven't kept pace."

Even as the ava was meeting, the National Center for Education Statistics (nces) released new data revealing that 42,074 of the 10 million secondary students enrolled in vocational-education programs last year were in "technical" programs; the largest enrollment areas were in the traditional office, trade, and industrial occupations.

About 35 percent, a decline of four percentage points from the 1979-80 school year, were enrolled in programs that provide training for specific occupations. (See Databank on Page 16.)

Many of the speakers at the conference agreed that the pattern will change, that vocational-education programs will have to adapt, and adapt quickly, to the demands of the new technology.

Because of the diversity of skills that the new technologies require, vocational schools can no longer afford to train students for careers in a single field, according to James A. Rehg, director of the Robotics Center at the Piedmont Technical College in Greenwood, S.C. "Individuals will have to be trained to handle interdisciplinary chores," he asserted. "Systems solution is what industry is going to be needing," he said, adding that automated machinery "is the only sound choice of industries that want to stay competitive in the world market."

'Technological Boom'

Mr. Rehg, who advocates team teaching in vocational education, said that vocational programs will have to be restructured and that teachers will require retraining as a result of the "technological boom."

In a general assessment of the education community's response to changes in technology, Mr. Rehg said that "the schools are moving at a speed and condition that is unsafe."

Daniel M. Hull of the Center for Occupational Research and Development in Waco, Tex., agreed. "Effective workers in high- technology occupations must possess a broad base of technical knowledge and the ability to communicate and manipulate in-formation with computers," he said. This demand for a new and different workforce, he added, will be translated into new curriculum requirements for secondary vocational-education programs.

Several speakers alluded to the "dilemma" facing vocational educators: balancing the demand to change programs in response to national needs with the requirements of the local communities that most vocational-education programs are designed to serve.

Gene Bottoms, executive director of the American Vocational Association, said emphasis is now being placed on redesigning curricula to add high-technology options to vocational programs and to strengthen the technological expertise of the vocational and technical schools. But he said many local educators are moving cautiously because the demand for high-technology workers varies throughout the country.

"The last thing this field wants to do is spend money on initiatives where there's no opportunity," Mr. Bottoms said.

"We are in the midst of some real structural shifts in the kinds of jobs that are going to be available," Mr. Bottoms said. "Those shifts are creating an increasing demand for educated people in the technologies."

"People are trying to sort out those changes and demands of the workplace," Mr. Bottoms added "and no one has a handle on how many [jobs there will be]; there is a lot of speculation."

The challenge to the schools, especially the comprehensive high schools that offer vocational-education programs, according to Mr. Hull, is to provide greater mathematics, physics, and communication skills along with a "hands-on approach" that would "capture the vocational-education student's imagination and interest."

This approach, he said, requires an integrated effort by a team of physics, mathematics, and English teachers working cooperatively with industrial and technical instructors.

He said the equipment used for manufacturing, energy production, information management, and health services consists of complex systems that "require operators and technicians who understand technical principles and basic devices, as well as procedures and operational skills.''

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