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Reversing Vocational 'Image': Officials Are Turning to P.R.

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When officials of the Prince George's County (Md.) Public Schools announced plans this year for a new "professional center'' at Largo High School, they were careful not to use the term vocational education.

The center will teach marketable job skills when it opens in 1989--majors in biotechnology; entrepreneurship; finance; and law, management, and public policy are its selling points.

But to call such coursework vocational education, said Brian J. Porter, the system's public-affairs director, would have activated the public's "misunderstandings'' about the field.

"We had a strong hesitancy about giving that kind of label to this program,'' Mr. Porter said.

The Largo center was designed to draw white students from throughout the county to the predominantly black high school.

But even with the care taken to present the program as "professional'' rather than "vocational,'' many parents in the black middle-class neighborhood Largo serves balked when they first heard of the plan.

"Finance was assumed to be bank telling, which was interpreted as a vocational trade,'' said Mr. Porter. "And a vocational trade, in parents' minds, was less than positive.''

The parents expressed concern that the program would be watered down to provide skills-training and would not adequately prepare their children for college.

"Those folks grew up in a time when vocational education was very different,'' said Mr. Porter. "It prepared you for one skill and your only option after graduation was to find a job using that skill--you were locked in.''

"They are sharing that view with their children when, in fact, we are re-gearing the whole curriculum to reflect changing needs.''

Along with the re-gearing, he said, "must come the re-education of parents, students, and even teachers about the whole new realm of opportunities that exists.''

Promotion a Top Priority

In an educational climate dominated by rising standards and increased options, vocational educators are finding themselves in an unusual position: They must market their services.

The re-education of the public--and of many educators--has become a top priority in the field, as public-relations and marketing campaigns in states and localities across the country seek to change vocational education's outdated image.

"Improving the image ... may well be the most important issue before us today,'' wrote Francis T. Tuttle, president of the American Vocational Association, in a recent issue of the association's magazine devoted entirely to the topic.

According to Ione Phillips, the A.V.A.'s assistant director for communications, efforts to market and promote vocational education have increased dramatically over the past five years.

The school-reform movement has increased academic requirements to the point that most students have little time for vocational course offerings, Ms. Phillips said, adding that the resulting decline in enrollments threatens many vocational programs.

At the same time, she and others point out, the changing business climate is demanding more highly skilled entry-level workers who have the ability to adapt their skills to new technologies. Even in the traditional trades, such as plumbing and automotive mechanics, extensive knowledge of computers and other technologies is now required.

Vocational educators have begun to respond to the dual demands of the reform movement and industry by tailoring their programs to satisfy both--shortening course sequences and class periods to fit into tight student schedules, and upgrading courses to fulfill academic requirements and better prepare students intellectually for the modern workplace.

But many are finding it difficult to dispel through upgraded programs alone time-worn perceptions of vocational education as a "dead-end street'' or a "dumping ground'' for problem students.

They are turning to public relations to reach the markets that the A.V.A. president, Mr. Tuttle, describes as "those for whom the image is tarnished by myth or blurred by lack of knowledge.''

Changing 'Terrible Self-Image'

"I don't think there is much history in education of recognizing the need for public relations,'' said D. Ross Thomson, coordinator of information dissemination for New York's Bureau of Occupational Education.

"Indeed, the term 'P.R.' has been kind of a no-no term in education,'' he said at a recent statewide public-relations conference sponsored by the department.

The conference, the first of its kind in New York State, brought together nearly 200 vocational educators to study effective marketing techniques.

Charles W. Brodhead, president of The Communications Support Group Inc., a firm that specializes in applying commercial marketing techniques to the nonprofit sector, told participants that the need to address many different audiences made marketing vocational education a complex proposition.

Mr. Brodhead has initiated promotional campaigns for several regional vocational-education centers in New York and in six other states.

He stressed the need to boost morale within the professional community as a necessary starting point.

"Historically, occupational or vocational education has been the stepchild of education,'' he said. "And one of the things I find as I go around the country is that vocational educators have a terrible self-image.''

Marketing campaigns must not merely inform the public, he said, but also must build an "internal sense of self worth.''

Other educators, particularly guidance counselors and school administrators, should be targeted next, Mr. Brodhead said.

Once the local education community is on board, he said, the major emphasis of the campaign should be attracting potential students.

Some of this marketing, the consultant noted, has to be targeted at parents, who heavily influence their children's decisions and are the most likely to have formed an opinion about vocational education.

"That group has probably grown up with images of vocational education as shop or woodworking,'' Mr. Brodhead told the conference participants. "It's up to you to change those perceptions, and that's not an easy task.''

To reach students and parents more effectively, Mr. Brodhead has adopted a technique used by commercial advertisers. He has given the vocational programs in the districts he works with a brand name: "VoPro.''

VoPro, which is a service mark of The Communications Support Group, is used both as a noun and an adjective. The students are VoPros and they take VoPro courses at the VoPro center.

"We created this term on the premise that nobody wants to buy a car--they want to buy an Iroc Z or a Trans Am,'' he said. "We wanted to get away from the generic identifier.''

The VoPro campaign consists of radio spots featuring testimonials from VoPro students or parents, newspaper advertisements featuring VoPro graduates and usually paid for by an employer, a newsletter, a slide show, and VoPro fairs at local shopping malls or other high-visibility locations.

According to Mr. Brodhead, such an extensive, multi-media effort is necessary to be truly effective.

Logos and Role Models

Many states are initiating statewide campaigns incorporating several of the techniques that have been successful at the local level.

In New York, for example, the department has replaced the term "vocational'' with "occupational'' and has adopted a slogan and a design logo to identify its marketing tools.

One of those tools is the national magazine Career Success, which is capitalizing on the vocational-education community's need to reach students with a positive message.

Produced by Key Publishers in Kansas City, Mo., the bright, four-color magazine features articles on academic and job issues and profiles successful people who began their careers as vocational-educational students, such as the fashion designer Calvin Klein.

States can purchase the magazine for distribution to junior high schools with the option to include customized inserts with information on state vocational offerings.

New York produces a four-page full-color insert emblazoned with the state vocational slogan, "Building New York's Future ... And Yours.''

New York also is putting together an up-beat video that conveys the benefits of vocational education, and is initiating a contest and awards program--Occolades--to encourage public-relations efforts in local districts.

Other states and several national organizations are engaged in similar efforts:

  • Idaho has launched a five-year campaign aimed at educators, industry personnel, job seekers, students, and the general public. Its slogan is "Invest in Success,'' and it uses a multi-media approach that includes press kits, billboards, posters, news releases, and public-service announcements on radio and television.

Funding for the campaign is being provided by the state council on vocational education, the state education department, and industry sponsors.

  • A four-year program in Oklahoma has concentrated on developing materials that can be localized to individual schools. Its theme: "Oklahoma Vo-Tech ... It Works.''
  • The National Association of State Councils on Vocational Education held a conference in December focused solely on marketing, promotion, and the creation of a positive image for programs.

The association also has published a book that outlines the marketing efforts of seven states--Hawaii, Iowa, North Carolina, Montana, Louisana, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania.

  • The A.V.A. itself has formed a public-information network and introduced a quarterly newsletter, Image, that reports on public-relations efforts around the country.

The association also has put together a handbook on public-relations techniques in vocational education and will hold a one-day conference in December on image-building.

'In the Vanguard'

Many vocational educators say that rising competition for students will mean that, eventually, many other segments of the education community will lean more heavily on promotional efforts.

New York's Mr. Thomson said that "occupational education is in the vanguard of recognizing this need.''

"In many areas of education, we can no longer just show up and expect our classes to be full,'' he said.

To Mr. Porter, the Prince George's County experience bears out that contention.

"I already coordinate marketing strategies for our magnet schools, and I'm meeting in June with our vocational educators to devise some consistent strategies,'' he said. "With so much competition, comprehensive schools will have to get in the game, too.''

"It will come down to this,'' he said. "The schools that can sell themselves will be the schools that maintain enrollments.''

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