When the state tells you what field to go into

Senate Bill 14 and why I care professionally

The North Carolina legislative process recently pinched out a frighteningly brief bill (law) that appears to bypass that whole pesky notion of vocational and career theory, and instead herds large groups of students into career and technical education. I think skilled labor has high value, both as an economic resource and for personal development. It’s also such a broad career category that spans multiple domains for aptitude and interest. However, the data surrounding this law’s reasoning has me feeling intellectually nervous.

Jonathan Pobre / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

A huge part of my profession as a rehabilitation counselor, is vocation. One of the more typecast roles for rehab professionals is to assist persons with disabilities in choosing, obtaining, and retaining suitable employment. These disabilities can be physical, mental health, developmental, or relate to substance abuse. They must be chronic enough to pose a barrier to employment in a significant manner. I specialize in addictions, but my passion for teaching as a ‘newbie’ in academia has made me a horizontal generalist, meaning I branch out into a lot of areas of interest instead of becoming a greater expert in one. That will hopefully change when (if?) I can land in a tenure-track research spot. Most Ph.D.s don’t make it into academia, and some of those don’t last- but it’s something I want to try, because I believe I have a lot to offer in terms of innovation. I believe technology is already changing the landscape, drastically, for people with varying abilities in work and leisure- for the better. Anyway, I teach a bit about career theory, as well as counseling theory, and also about job placement and occupational analysis.

Anyway, I live in the state of North Carolina. I become engaged in politics when I see its pertinence toward people with disabilities, or education, in particular. Right now, there’s a lot of buzz about labor and social services. The latest bill, “Increase Access to Career & Technical Education” includes provisions to lessen standards for career and technical teachers seeking licensure. It doesn’t exactly explain how, it just mandates it. It goes on to designate high school diplomas with specifics on what types of work a high school graduate is prepared to do. That scared me a little bit, because of all the data that shows career exploration goes on well into our 20s and 30s. Donald Super would say it’s lifelong, in fact, with mini cycles changing our vocational directions as we proceed. Another aspect of the bill, and probably my least favorite, directs our education system to direct students away from college and into career and technical fields. I want to highlight these latter two areas, diploma branding and guiding students into education sectors based on the supposed current job market, from my standpoint.

Diploma Branding

The language of the bill with regard to diploma branding is as follows:

The State Board of Education shall make high school diploma endorsements, as provided under this section, available to students graduating high school beginning with the 2014-2015 school year. […] The State Board of Education shall submit the report on the impact of awarding the high school endorsements on high school graduation, college acceptance and remediation, and post-high school employment rates by September 1, 2016, and annually thereafter.

Governor McCrory recently admonished his citizenry against liberal arts degrees, many of which actually have some of the highest bachelor level employment rates- even when stacked up against some of the science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. This bill goes one step further, urging high schools to remind colleges that students may require “remediation”, and its success is thereby measured through students’ alternative post secondary education choices: career and technical schools. What are some examples of remediation in college? Well this is where my profession comes into the picture. Disabilities often result in college remediation.

Extra Ketchup / Foter.com / CC BY-SA
  • A specific learning disability (e.g.: math, reading, or written language) means, broadly put, that a student’s intellectual range of functioning is average or higher, while there is impairment in one category. This phenomenon often means you’ll have someone who excels in “everything but math”, or “anything except writing”. Similar categorical skill deficits sometimes result from an autism spectrum, or dyslexia, or even a time-limited developmental delay when basic skills were first being learned. I know a number of engineers and scientists who had dyslexia. They “mathed” me under the table, but they would require writing remediation in college. This law would seek to dissuade them from trying. Imagine the difference in quality of life between a full time software engineer and a full time computer network installer- the difference being that one of them got remediation in college to help with written content.
  • Other hiccups from our schools often result in the need to remediate for bad teaching or guidance, an acute situation for health, or a curriculum continuum mismatch  after a move or school change. Sometimes a student doesn’t receive appropriate services based on a disability, which results in missing material that is pertinent to college prerequisites. An example of this may be a student who misses a great deal of classroom content due to a sickness or physical condition, but has the aptitudes for college. Such a student may conceivably have aced a GED, maybe collects the credits to graduate from high school- but could not complete the foreign language requirements many colleges have. When such a student is admitted to college, he or she receives remediation in foreign language. This law seems to dissuade colleges from accepting such students based on a prescriptive diploma endorsement.

I believe that we need a clever workforce, and that any notion “career and technical trades are for the less bright” is absolutely wrong. Completely, ridiculously wrong. The last thing I would want to do is to make the presumption that intellect should be the determinant for college. Unfortunately, this law may do that too- by narrowing the gates to [generally] higher income, and employment. This is done in part by using such a narrow, uniform measure as a designation on a diploma. Career aptitude measurement is a multifaceted process- it cannot be done with a diploma brand. But let me repeat that college grads have higher income and lower unemployment.

Guiding Students into Career Sectors

WHAT?! Did I just say that college grads have higher income and lower unemployment? Yes, but there is a lot of variance in the data. For that reason, everyone has an anecdote about so-and-so who lives in his or her parent’s basement with a degree in Anthropology. There is this almost derogatory notion that the workforce is saturated with liberal arts folks who aren’t prepared for specific jobs. However, I have two reasons to take issue with this line of thinking. First, Liberal Arts is a valuable degree for a wider variety of jobs; and second, the data says going to college [generally] makes sense, if you possibly can.

  • Liberal Arts is a valuable degree.  The beauty of career theory is that it looks, depending on the theory itself, to match a person with the appropriate calling. I hear government officials talking about “jobs“, but I would argue that if you prepare someone for a job that is dependent upon a free market (especially a turbulent market like today), when the job is gone, the education has been wasted. On the other hand, if you prepare someone with the abstract skills to apply one’s self to a myriad of different workplaces, that person will thrive in various environments. The idea of a person / environment match is much different from traditional ideas of workforce. If we simply assigned people to jobs based on the jobs’ needs, we’d have unhappy people expelling very little discretionary effort and they’d turn out complete crap results. They won’t enjoy their work and they’ll use sick days. People with disabilities are no different when it comes to “work that sucks” – it’s not that some of these are lower jobs. It’s that they may not be in the right career, when you limit their options. We shouldn’t be planning the education of a generation based on employer workforce whims. They’ll waste a lot of money in the end, and they’ll leave as quickly as they arrive. It’s a nightmare. I’ll spare the Godwin’s law material about fascism and assigning jobs based on the needs of the state, because it’s ideology. Instead, I’ll use some data.
  • The Data shows benefits for going to college. Here’s a raw version for unemployment and earning potential. A simple read of Senate Bill 14 would appear to mean that the state is directing that a greater proportion of the workforce be coerced into a job sector with lower earning potential and higher rates of unemployment:

The State Board of Education, in collaboration with the State Board of Community Colleges, shall develop strategies to increase the number of high school students engaging in career and technical education, especially in the areas of engineering and industrial technologies, and in other occupations with high numbers of employment opportunities.

This is being done for the needs of the state, which are being emphasized over and above individual career development and vocational choice. This is every bit as important (and maybe even moreso) for someone with a disability, where increasing a person’s specific vocational preparation levels can reduce or remove barriers to entire professions and millions in potential lifetime income.

Concluding My Thoughts

Can you imagine having your diploma stamped a certain way, by your state government, because that’s what private employers want it to say? I think that’s wrong. But let’s say we’re just looking at this from a state government  supply-and-demand point of view. Here are some summary reasons why I think mandating young high school graduates to undertake a specific job sector is wrong for the state:

  • We’re pushing a new generation into an over-saturated job market. In another legislative action, North Carolina has ceremoniously and cheerfully cut unemployment benefits in their scope, as well as in their length. This means in July of 2013, 170,000 unemployed people in North Carolina will be, according to the logic of the bill, looking harder for work than they were before. They’ll be more interested in “doing whatever possible” to meet basic needs with low wage jobs. This will apparently bring employers to our state, knowing that this labor is cheap and desperate- but will 170,000 new jobs arrive in North Carolina over 6 months? The other presumption is that there are current jobs which the chronically unemployed just should have settled for, but their benefits were too high. Keep in mind that graduating seniors will enter that very same job market. There are simply more jobs available to educated people than to lesser educated people, as illustrated here.
  • We are solving an over-saturated job market by lowering our citizens’ education, when we could instead attract higher educated jobs and employers. Education level is associated in the developed world with industrial advances, higher standards of living, and reduced crime and criminal recidivism. Be sure to click on those links.

Finally, because there is a culture in this state and nation to engage in testimony-based political discourse, I add the following: My bachelor’s degree is a liberal arts degree, and I have never been unemployed. I have always chosen my career and professional moves, and always will. I cannot imagine where I’d be if my high school guidance counselor had coerced me into something technical- or mandated it as such by stamping it on my diploma.

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