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We take a look at the numbers and tell you where they add up and, even more importantly, where they don’t.

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Vocational Education

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Hands On

The Fall of American Vocational Tech

Why you should care

Because there’s a big gap between how much the U.S. versus the rest of the world invests in hands-on training. And a lot of companies want more. 

Let’s talk tech — vo-tech, that is.

Lessons in tuning car engines, wielding jigsaws and torching metal at the local high school have fallen by the wayside in many school districts, as community priorities have turned more toward things like computer hardware and software. The focus is on the college track.

How far have vocational studies fallen? The U.S. now ranks

21 out of 29

developed nations when it comes to spending on vocational training, as a percentage of the national GDP, according to a study from the Hamilton Project , part of the Brookings Institute think tank.

Vocational classes might include more traditional, old-school carpentry, electronic and car repair classes, but also cosmetology, graphic design or health-care assistant tracks.

For the entire United States, the vocational education budget tallies less than 1 percent of 1 percent. A fraction of a fraction.

Tiny Estonia spends more. So does Slovakia. You don’t even want to look at Finland’s spending, which is more than five times that of the U.S.

Woman working on car engine in blue smock

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And it’s not because there’s no demand. In 2013, some 17,000 would-be vocational school students in New Jersey were turned away because programs just didn’t have room for them, according to one local newspaper editorial . Meanwhile 75 percent of that state’s manufacturing firms said they had a hard time finding enough skilled labor to meet their production needs.

And that’s just one fairly small state.

As a nation wrestling with the high cost of college, it’s worth taking a minute to note that it’s not just about papers and lectures but often more about organizational skills, attention spans and desire. Not to mention the mental and philosophical benefits of doing work that, in some cases, relies on your hands. Just check out the award-winning Shop Class as Soulcraft.

So maybe the answer to so many job and higher education debt struggles isn’t more space in college, but better access to more hands-on training.

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