When it comes to high-demand careers and salaries, several economists believe that “Blue collar is the new white collar.” Yet, while Latino teens and young adults seem to have gotten the memo on these growing vocational and technical opportunities and responded accordingly, some say young Blacks are not taking advantage at the same rate.

“Trade school education will be the defining factor in the economic progress and wealth development of American society in the second quarter of the 21st century,” said Norma Thomas, former Booker T. Washington High School Teacher of the Year, and founder of her own school, the NT Conservatory.

Thomas believes billionaire Warren Buffet’s prediction about the next decade witnessing an increase in millionaires emerging from small business owners will be fulfilled primarily by today’s vocational education students. She believes this will best be facilitated if such education expands beyond its current forms.

“The majority of these future millionaires will come from students who have been afforded the opportunity to not just begin vocational education in high school or attend trade school thereafter, but those whose forté is discovered, nurtured, and utilized to inform their educational experience beginning in elementary school,” said Thomas.

However, Dr. Alton Smith, board chairman of Lone Star College, believes the most immediate hurdle is getting Blacks students in high school to take advantage of vocational programs.

“Our kids get the same information about these programs as other kids before they start high school,” said Smith. “Latino students are taking advantage, but our kids aren’t.”

Smith says vocational programs fell out of favor in the 1960s when Russia launched Sputnik, and the U.S., in attempts to catch up and win the space race, began pushing everyone towards obtaining four-year degrees, especially in science or engineering.

“The message was, ‘You’re inferior if you don’t have a four-year degree.’ The result – we have a major shortage of people in America with technical skills. And everyone is not suited for a four-year school,” he added.

According to Smith and multiple industry sources, several of the top trade fields offer salaries that outpace many of the jobs offered to college graduates, but without the student loan debt.

Smith argues that Black parents “need to start being parents,” especially during their children’s 8th grade year when they choose their high school area of focus.

“Black parents need to be more adamant about telling their kids what to take in high school, like Latino and white parents,” Smith shared, hoping to increase what he sees as lagging Black participation in vocational programs.

But participation rates reported by local educational institutions paint a different picture.

HISD’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) Program boasts 191 career pathways in 42 HISD schools. Many of those pathways are geared toward students looking for immediate employment after graduation rather than pursuing a college degree. With a 2015-2016 enrollment of 42,300 students, and 3,417 CTE graduates in 2015, HISD has found a receptive audience for these programs.

Dr. Michael Love. HISD’s Assistant Superintendent, Career Readiness, oversees the district’s Futures Academy that offers multiple programs designed to graduate students who are workforce ready. According to Love, “The demographics of Black students in our program mirror the demographics of Blacks in the district.”

Currently, HISD’s student racial makeup is 62.1 percent Hispanic, 24.5 percent Black, 8.4 percent White and 3.7 percent Asian.

Like Smith, Love points to 8th grade as the key year for applying to these programs that produce high school graduates who “are workforce ready or can cut down on college hours needed and costs because students earn associates degrees along with their high school diplomas.”

For students unable to apply as 8th graders, or those 9th graders transferring in from out of state or another school district, Smith says they can apply during their freshman year, but spot availability will depend on the program, as some will already be filled to capacity.

In neighboring Aldine Independent School District (AISD) the demand for vocational programs is so high an entire campus, scheduled to open August 2018, is slated to offer this curriculum.

According to Franklin Higgins, AISD’s Director of Career and Technical Education, Aldine’s Career and Technical High School, located at 311 West Rd., will offer a multiplicity of programs in the areas of Audio/Video Production, Information Technology, Health Sciences, Construction, Oil and Gas, Manufacturing, Engineering, Automotive and more.

“The facilities design will incorporate the latest technology and environmental technologies designed with an industry environment,” said Higgins. “Equipment and technologies will be the same used in the industry.”

Higgins says the school will begin accepting student applications in October 2017, and offer a curriculum that blends work-based concepts into the academic curriculum. He added, the school seeks to reflect the District’s student population which current is 23 percent Black.

Their CTE program as of June 2016 was 21 percent Black.

For high school graduates who regret not pursuing vocational education, there are programs offered at the community college level.

“We have over 100 workforce fast-track certificates, level 1-3 certificates leading up to an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree,” said Linda Head, Lone Star College’s Associate Vice Chancellor, who coordinates workforce education and corporate partnerships. “If a student is just beginning their educational path to a non-traditional student who may need additional skills for the workplace. Our areas of study include business & professional services, computer information technology, energy & manufacturing, skilled trades and healthcare. If a student is looking for training in any of these areas they can start their education while also working and continue toward a workforce AAS degree.”

Head says they work tirelessly to help their students find jobs, which is a lot easier because the students have been trained with actual equipment from the workplace.

“Our curriculum is 75 percent hands-on, 20 percent theory and 5 percent visual simulation. This type of training allows the students to work with equipment they will be using with employers. The training within workforce education allows for a direct connection between skills needed and earned with Lone Star College,” Head said.

Despite the positive institutional numbers, Smith is not alone is believing Black numbers in vocational programs aren’t adequate.

“Vocational programs are not only the means by which positive economic forecasts will be fulfilled, but are the answer to those whose outlook on the future for Black and Hispanic students, males in particular, is bleak. The future does not have to be bleak, when it is placed in the hands of students who have been pointed in the direction of their own very special fortes and vocations at a young age, and whose personalized education has been informed by this knowledge,” stated Thomas.

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...

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