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Vocational teachers are unsung heroes

Mixed in with the pride of watching their sons and daughters graduate from high school, some parents must be wondering this year if any jobs actually await their children.

This deep recession has erased hundreds of thousands of jobs and triggered a historic industrial restructuring that will forever alter many traditional career paths.

Of course, there will be new jobs, but what kinds of jobs? And how should this generation prepare itself? These thoughts occurred to me several weeks ago as I watched 1,200 students walk across the stage to receive their degrees and certificates from South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia. Some of them were the first in their families to complete any kind of education beyond high school.

The students — the young and the not so young — lined up at one end of the stage and heard shouts of joy and celebration from family and friends as their names were called. And as they walked across the stage, I realized here are our future welders, auto mechanics, dental assistants, paralegals, nurses, chefs, land surveyors, computer programmers and business office workers.

They are the working people who form the foundation of our nation.

Each of those graduates emerged from one- or two-year vocational programs with a certificate that qualifies them for a job. Studies show that vocational graduates find employment more often than their nonvocational peers, and often earn more.

Those findings run contrary to a belief Americans have held for the past 40 years or so — that only a degree from a four-year college or university will guarantee you a middle-class lifestyle.

But experience shows a four-year degree doesn’t guarantee a high income. Only about two-thirds of college graduates work in their fields of study, and just half of those with professional credentials for teaching or engineering actually work in related jobs. For many, a four-year degree is the right thing. For many others, our state’s technical schools offer a better alternative, because they train young people for the fastest-growing segments of the labor market.

Even Yale alum, President Barack Obama, has said that community colleges might be the greatest tool America has to pull itself out of our current economic muck.

Consider that there are nine times as many janitors as lawyers, accountants, investment bankers and stockbrokers combined. Health care workers are in short supply and will remain so for the next several decades. Our community colleges can’t turn out enough nurses to fill all the current openings.

Registrations this summer for South Puget Sound Community College’s fall programs already have reached high numbers. This will cause headaches for SPSCC administrators because the community college doesn’t limit enrollments, despite this year’s budget cuts and other shrinking resources.

Our four-year schools and graduate programs provide the necessary venue for creating our future doctors and teachers and architects. We need them, of course, and improved access to these institutions, too. But it’s time to give two-year community colleges and vocational and technical schools the respect they deserve. Professional jobs make up about 20 percent of all jobs in the United States, and only about a quarter of all technical jobs require a four-year degree.

The next time you get your car repaired so you can meet friends at a restaurant where chefs will prepare your dinner so that you can discuss how carpenters and electricians are building the new addition to your house and how the assistant made your recent experience at the dentist’s office enjoyable, say a little thanks to all those who toil passionately at our vocational schools and colleges.

George Le Masurier, publisher of The Olympian, can be reached at 360-357-0206 or glemasuirer@theolympian.com.

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