What’s wrong with vocational education?
This rather pointed question was asked in an op-ed column that appeared in the January 17 edition of the Wall Street Journal. It’s a question that demands a satisfactory answer, especially in the automotive industry.
And so, I’ll ask the question again: What’s wrong with vocational education?
As I look around me, there must be something wrong with it: Guidance counselors, teachers, parents and even many students eschew it. At the same time, demand for trained technicians and store personnel has gone up. Yet, three-quarters of high school vo-tech education programs have disappeared since the early 1980s, according to the California Industrial and Technology Education Association.
From an automotive perspective, there’s something a little incongruous about all this when you consider the great demand our society has for trades of all sorts, automotive included. As the writer of the aforementioned column so aptly put it, “Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, glazier, mason...is difficult.” He could have just as easily added automotive technician and parts professional to that list.
I’m happy to report that there seems to be a renaissance of sorts for vo-tech programs. Legislators in North Carolina and Florida are reviving programs gutted years ago. The movement is also gaining momentum in California, thanks in part to a state budget that includes $100 million for program expansion. Congress, too, has voted to reauthorize $1.3 billion for career-based courses in high schools and community colleges.
Compared to the attention vo-tech programs get from the OEs, aftermarket participation in education pales. Many of these programs get cozy with dealerships and the OEs, which fund and equip these schools as a way to train the next generation of dealer techs. OEs know where their future technicians are coming from. Do we?
We preach about how important technicians are. Yet funding for secondary vocational training often comes from outside the aftermarket. We preach about how important store personnel are for the success of distributors, both large and small. Yet I can count on one hand the number of parts training programs I know of in the industry. Automotive vocational education has morphed into for-profit ventures with deep relationships with the OEs. Just in my own area, General Motors has a regional training center located right across from a vo-tech. That’s not a coincidence.
Sure, some in the aftermarket are trying. I applaud efforts like Uni-Select’s partnership with Alfred State College a program that includes a parts-specialist course. Current Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association Chairman Dick Morgan has made training a top priority during his tenure as head of that association. They and a handful of others, including many of the program groups, are putting real action behind automotive education. It’s a big industry; what about everybody else?
The aftermarket is losing the education battle. Couple this with the on-going attrition of aftermarket parts in favor of OE branded parts and we have the beginnings of a very big problem.
What’s wrong with vocational education? I have a better question: What’s wrong with the aftermarket?