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Vocational-Education Column

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When I.A. Ghazalah, an economics professor at Ohio University, set out to examine the earnings of the state's vocational-education graduates, he did not expect to become a champion of the programs.

Yet after gaining unique access to U.S. Internal Revenue Service records to track the wages of Ohio students, Mr. Ghazalah found the results much different than what he had anticipated, he said in a recent interview.

"People had always said there would be a benefit from vocational courses, but economists had argued that the difference in pay would disappear after five years,'' he said. But the study of 15,000 Ohio graduates proved otherwise.

Mr. Ghazalah's study, published by the university this winter, found that the graduates not only entered higher-paying jobs but also maintained the income advantage over their work peers past the five-year mark.

"We were not giving due regard to the importance of motivation and interest,'' the researcher said, explaining that, unlike many students who eventually level out after learning a job, vocational students engaged by high-school programs often maintain their head start.

"These days, people have to learn to change, and a person who is interested is much more able to do that,'' Mr. Ghazalah said, explaining that most exemplary programs emphasize flexibility and expertise by providing individualized programs and hiring knowledgeable faculty.

"It is important to get that kind of motivation at that age,'' Mr. Ghazalah said. "I am not really a crusader for vocational education, but I am an advocate of education because I believe that we tend to underestimate the value of it.''

Small-business managers are largely unimpressed with the skills of recent graduates, according to a two-year study by the Southport Institute for Policy Analysis.

But despite the managers' complaints that up to 40 percent of their workers have serious basic-skills problems, less than 5 percent have established training programs to address the situation.

Increasingly, small businesses are looking for ways to team with educators to customize remediation programs, many of which have demonstrated significant productivity gains, according to "The Missing Link: Workplace Education in Small Business.''

The director of the project said that educators should be in demand to tailor basic-skills programs to small companies.

"Cost is not a major problem,'' said Forrest P. Chisman, the author of the report and the president of the Washington-based institute. "These companies are investing in workplace education because they believe they have to.''--L.H.

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