Vocational Education Column

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In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education last week, U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich suggested that the Clinton Administration may introduce its school-to-work initiative as part of an omnibus workforce-development bill.

The legislation, which Mr. Reich said would be ready in the next four to six months, would also address improvements in unemployment insurance, the needs of displaced workers, and the creation of "one-stop shopping'' centers for adults needing job training and assistance.

During the hearing, Mr. Reich also said he envisions developing voluntary national skill standards in no more than 15 or 20 broad occupational clusters. This compares with skill standards for more than 300 separate job categories in countries such as Germany. (See related story, page 1.)

An overwhelming majority of high school principals and small-business owners agreed in a recent poll that the nation needs a better system of preparing young people for work.

Of the 4,170 principals surveyed by the National Alliance of Business this winter, 95 percent said they would be willing to alter their schools' curricula to include courses that are relevant to particular careers.

In addition, 74 percent of the 2,675 employers surveyed said they would be willing to spend time and money working with schools and part-time employees to have better-trained workforces.

Of the employers who were not willing, 80 percent said they would be if the government offered them incentives such as subsidies and tax credits.

This spring, the alliance created the Business Center for Youth Apprenticeship to help engage American employers in the development of a school-to-work system. The alliance has received $500,000 in grants from the U.S. Labor and Education departments for youth- apprenticeship demonstration projects.

Youth apprenticeships should be linked to the Clinton Administration's broader strategy for helping U.S. industries compete by creating a national network of regional technology alliances and manufacturing-extension centers, a political scientist with the RAND Corporation suggests.

David Finegold of RAND's Institute on Education and Training notes in a recent paper that the alliances would provide small companies with an array of services that are often beyond the means of individual firms, such as export marketing, technology diffusion, and pooled research.

"Linking youth apprenticeships and lifelong worker-training programs with these other services,'' he suggests, "would enhance both the utilization of the services and the relevance and quality of training.''

It also would encourage businesses to view skills development as vital to their overall strategies, he writes.

The federal government plans to build a national network of manufacturing-extension centers and a new set of regional technology centers over the next five years. The government would cover part of the costs of such services, while firms would pay a fee to join the consortia.

One proposal for developing such centers was included in the "national competitiveness act'' introduced in Congress last month.

Experts interested in designing a youth-apprenticeship system for the United States could learn lessons from the seldom-studied field of agricultural education, according to a report from the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.

The report, written by Thomas Bailey and Donna Merritt, describes the nation's system of agricultural education, extension, and research as "one of the enduring U.S. economic success stories of the last century.''

"What differentiates agricultural education from most other forms of vocational education is the socialization that students receive into the world of work through voluntary extra-curricular activities,'' such as 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America programs, the authors contend. Such student organizations, they maintain, have become an integral part of the education process, and they appear to reach out to both academically able and less-able teenagers.

Although much of the available research on agricultural education's effectiveness has been produced by "enthusiastic advocates,'' the authors note, "agricultural education is worth more scrutiny.''

The report, "The School-to-Work Transition and Youth Apprenticeship: Lessons From the U.S. Experience,'' also examines implications of the "tech prep'' model, cooperative education, and high school career academies.

Five states will receive intensive help over the next two years to develop and implement comprehensive workforce-preparation and training strategies.

The project of the National Conference of State Legislatures and Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit group in Cambridge, Mass., is funded with a $974,000 grant from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund.

The five states that will receive ongoing technical assistance--Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Washington, and West Virginia--were selected from among 21 applicants.--L.O.

Vol. 12, Issue 33

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