NEWS & TRENDS: Convincing Students that Learning Blue Collar Job Skills Will Pay Off

With jobs in the trades going begging and too many kids exiting four-year colleges with crippling debt only to find their degrees don’t have labor-market currency, Janesville (WI) Superintendent Steve Pophal says more people need to consider the value of certifications and two-year technical degrees. Many businesses say they can’t find enough skilled workers to fill jobs in manufacturing and the trades. Pophal is helping to send teachers back to school for master’s degrees at the local Blackhawk Technical College so they can teach more specialized classes that also count for college credit. The city’s two traditional high schools are creating programs in mechatronics, a growing field that combines mechanical engineering and electronics; Pophal is also courting businesses and adding more opportunities for workplace learning. The district offers classes that demand interdisciplinary and real-world thinking and helps juniors and seniors focus on job-linked areas of study, such as health and human services; business, administration, marketing and arts; and technology, engineering, agriculture, manufacturing and science. Education in the state has become a central election issue as Governor Scott Walker runs for another term. His Democratic challenger Tony Evers, state schools superintendent, estimates Walker’s cuts to schools and universities between 2011 and 2017 to total $1 billion, leaving schools and districts looking to nonprofits and grants to make up budget shortfalls. At the same time, not everyone agrees that it’s the job of schools to give students workplace expertise — or even that a so-called skills gap exists.