JVER v26n2 - What is the Future for Post-Secondary Occupational Education?

Volume 26, Number 2

What is the Future for Post-Secondary Occupational Education?

Jim Jacobs
Macomb Community College, and
Columbia University

In May 2000, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Vocational and Adult Education convened a group of community college administrators and practitioners to discuss future trends in post-secondary vocational education (PSOE) programs. Within 15 minutes of the meeting's outset, we reached consensus on two important-and apparently contradictory-conclusions. First, we agreed that one of the core missions of community colleges is workforce development-the preparation of all community college learners for the world of work. A second consensus also quickly emerged that the traditional design concepts of vocational education, while still commonplace on community college campuses, have grown outmoded. Ignoring fundamental changes in the structure of the American industrial economy, traditional vocational education continues to structure itself around "terminal" programs directed at preparing young people for entry-level work. These programs, it was agreed, neglect any connection with those liberal arts classes that develop essential critical thinking skills. Moreover, they fail to provide a seamless curriculum culminating in admission to, and completion of the growing number of career-specific, four-year degrees. Vocational education, observed one participant, "remains the land of the dinosaurs."

Mounting evidence indicates that community college leaders no longer believe that PSOE programs neither fulfill the workforce development mission of their institutions nor meet the needs of their students and regional employers. In their recent report, The Knowledge Net ( American Association for Community Colleges & the Association of Community College Trustees, 2000 ), ostensibly the chief national voice of the community college, the AACC completely ignores vocational education. While large numbers of the community college administrators attending the AACC's 2000 convention filed panels devoted to future trends in customized training, employer use of the internet, and even the Department of Labor's Workforce Investment Act , not a single panel discussed the current state of Tech Prep, and just one or two panels any more than passing reference to the Perkins Act. Clearly, even though most assessments of the skill demands of the 21st century American economy reveal that a prerequisite to high skill-high wage jobs will be a post-high school occupational education, the influence of vocational educators with community colleges appears to be on the wane. Reflecting this trend, many community colleges have created such positions as Vice President for Workforce Development to focus their activities, often by-passing the occupational dean, who remains within the traditional instructional part of the institution.

While this evidence may be too impressionistic to substantiate the declining position of post-secondary occupational education within the community college curriculum, there is little evidence to suggest that traditional vocational education-the preparation of young people for entry-level workplace occupations-is a very strong component of community college offerings. This is disturbing situation. This paper will argue that, both in substance and as a learning system, vocational education should be a significant mission of the modern community college. Moreover, despite the dismal landscape of traditional vocational education, there are small pockets of creative "new" occupational programs on which a future can be developed. Some of the new programs in emerging information technology occupations, allied health, and high-end manufacturing are important to the shape of future community college curricula. In addition, many of the adult education and continuing education programs directed at older individuals reentering the workforce are important parts of this new system of post-secondary vocational education.

However, if they are to emerge as more than "boutique" offerings, there will need to be a significant change in the present view of vocational education. The main barriers lie within the present organizational conceptualization of the discipline. In brief, vocational education needs to capitalize on the growing consensus that higher education, no less than secondary vocational education, must prepare its students for work. There is a distinct niche for post-secondary occupational education within the workforce preparation area, not separate from it. Post-secondary occupational education must "reinvent" itself-learning the lessons of these programs-if it is to retain its central place in the life of the community college.

There is the conventional wisdom within the vocational education community, viz. that post-secondary occupational education is similar in form and content to secondary vocational education, differing only in the complexity of the material to be mastered by the student. This assumption is simply groundless. The expectations of the market for graduates of post-secondary vocational education differ so fundamentally from those facing secondary education graduates that their traditional relationship-which has contributed in large measure to much of the suspicion and feuding over state and federal resources that has damaged both-must be set aside. In its place, we must come to more fully appreciate both the marked differences (especially the market for program graduates) balanced by their shared goals-e.g., breadth of skills, flexibility, and self-direction. It is these differences that necessitate many of the fundamental pedagogical differences that distinguish secondary and tertiary forms of vocational education and necessitate differences in the form, content, and delivery of instruction.

This paper assumes that most post-secondary vocational education is concentrated in the nation's approximately 1200 community colleges. While the 1998 Perkins Act makes it easier for four-year institutions, proprietary post-secondary institutions, union-run apprenticeship programs, and other forms of post-high school education to receive federal support for vocational programs, the bulk of Perkins support for post-secondary vocational education is still channeled to community colleges. Grubb ( in press ) reports that of the post-secondary students in vocational education, 78.5% of these students were enrolled in community colleges. And, while 8.3% were enrolled in four-year colleges, these were typically in separate, two-year divisions (as was the case in West Virginia and Ohio). Independent colleges enrolled 11.1% of Perkins eligible students, with the balance enrolled in area vocational schools, many of which are in the process of being reorganized as community colleges.

Increasing Market Heterogeneity for Post-Secondary Occupational Education

When compared to secondary vocational education, the condition of PSOE programs can appear quite sound. As the last National Assessment of Vocational Education ( 1994 ) concluded:

Vocational education is a relatively large and stable part of the postsecondary education system, accounting for two-thirds of all students in sub-baccalaureate institutions. Vocational enrollments have been increasing at about the same pace as postsecondary enrollments in general, in spite of rising attendance costs and a declining cohort of college-aged students. ( p. 9 )

Furthermore, the NAVE study found that employers had a positive view of post-secondary education and that there was some empirical evidence that PSOE completers received higher wages than community college program completers who failed to complete a vocational program.

At the same time, it should be noted that these generally positive findings were based on a comparative study of completers of PSOE vocational programs with those who went no further than a secondary-level vocational education. When the educational outcomes of vocational students are compared within the context of a single institution to their peers enrolled in transfer programs or customized training and workforce preparation programs for adults, the effects of PSOE programs appears far less positive.

In the 1990's, for example, PSOE program completers have declined despite the considerable growth in post-secondary education. Of all community college students, the portion majoring in occupational education programs decreased from 54% to 49% between 1990 and 1996 ( National Center for Education Statistics, 2000 ). This decline has come despite a significant increase in a general demand for post-secondary education among all American youth over these six years. Whereas, in 1960, 45% of high school graduates entered some form of post-secondary institution right after high school graduation, by 1993 the percentage had increased to 63% ( National Center for Education Statistics, 1998 ).

This shift also reflects an overall change in the studies pursued by students while in high school. From 1982 to 1988, academic or college preparation subjects increased by four Carnegie units, comprising 72% of all the units accumulated by public school graduates. Within the same period, there was an absolute decline in the Carnegie units taken in vocational courses. Wonacott ( 2000 ), for example, noted a decline of fully 9%-from 34% to just 25%-among vocational education concentrators (those graduates taking three or more courses in a single vocational program) between 1990 and 1994 ( 2000 ). Even more, the diminishing number of post-secondary vocational completers demonstrated a major shift in interest, rejecting programs in trade and industry and business (primarily office-skill curricula) for childcare and education, health care, food service and hospitality, and technology and communications. In general, some form of post-secondary degree is required for admission to this second set of careers ( National Center for Education Statistics, 2000 ).

About 50% of all college students are enrolled in community colleges. The proportion of associate degrees as a percentage of all post-secondary degrees has increased in the last 30 years from 16.2% to 25%, the largest growth of any post-secondary degree for this period ( Wonacott, 2000 ). Given the increased number of high school graduates who have elected to enter college and chosen the community college as their gateway, it would seem that the future of occupational programs at the post-secondary level is bright. However, the heterogeneity of enrollment patterns among community college students represents major challenges for post-secondary occupational education. In contrast to secondary system, which serves students from diverse backgrounds but of similar ages and with shared educational goals; post-secondary vocational education enrolls students of diverse backgrounds, different ages (and, thus, different life experiences), and a broad range of educational goals. Moreover, while secondary students are united by a shared interest in attending college, Adelman ( 1992 ) has found a pronounced diversity in the reasons that bring these students to the community college.

The consequence of these factors is that post-secondary occupational education is required to serve multiple markets, with widely varying objectives. To attract recent high school graduates, community colleges will need to fashion programs that leave students employable should their four-year degree aspirations prove unattainable. At the same time, there needs to be highly defined programs for those adults who are returning to school even through they already hold degrees and are employed. In both instances, the traditional view-inherited from the secondary system-of post-secondary education, characterized by large numbers of full time students marching lock step through graduated programs simply fails as a viable model.

Going further, this traditional view of the community college curriculum rests on a neatly, and no longer valid, bi-modal distribution of programs. Implicit to this curricular vision is the notion that occupational programs lead directly to employment, while transfer programs lead to four-year degrees. In fact, a growing number of community college student believe that their ultimate educational goal is the completion of a four-year degree as a means of obtaining a stable, good paying job . In 1982, less than 50% of community college students expected to obtain a four-year degree. Within a decade, that percentage has increased to almost 70% ( Schneider & Stevenson, 1999 ). A national sample of 100,000 community college students, conducted by the AACC and ACT, found that 60% of the respondents stated their main reason for taking classes was to fulfill occupational requirements ( Phillippe & Valiga, 2000 ). Yet few vocational courses are universally popular. Adelman ( 1998 ) analyzed credit class enrollments in the top 25 course categories out of a universe of 873, and found that accounting was the sole occupational course among the top 10 classes, and it enrolled just 2.7% of all students. Further, according to Adelman, only 7 of 25 courses could be truly classified as "occupational."

On the post-secondary level, changes in the occupational courses taken by community college students have changed based on a number of factors, chief of which is their altered perception of the labor market and its demand for credentials. Between 1990 and 1996, for example, enrollment in allied health programs increased slightly, but the number of majors in business, marketing, computers/data processing, and engineering technologies declined slightly. These trends suggest that despite some of these subjects being in "high demand" fields, students nevertheless believe that a degree or certification from a community college will fail to secure long-term employment in the field. As more occupations in business and information technologies require four-year degrees, students take these programs at these higher education institutions ( National Center for Education Statistics, 2000 ). These national trends suggest that post-secondary vocational education cannot be positioned as a terminal program if it is to remain relevant to the majority of students who want the flexibility of continuing their education if that is needed to obtain a high paying job.

Yet, despite the evidence that indicates community college vocational students intend to earn baccalaureate degrees, relatively few of them realize their initial intention. Nationally, less than 30% of all college students obtain a four-year degree, and the proportion of community college students who complete a baccalaureate is even less. In his review of community college student transcripts, Adelman ( 1998 ) found that as many as 40% of them actually completed fewer than ten-credit hours. Millions of community college students are inconsistent in their attendance, attending classes for a few semesters, and then leaving school for a period of work, only to return to school. Many of these students would be well served by occupational programs, yet, because of the length and requirements of these programs, rarely complete them. Regrettably, there are very few national studies of this "stop-out" phenomenon, to a great degree because the data are difficult to collect and verify and because there is no consensus among academic scholars for defining key terms. For example, how many years must pass before a "stop-out" student should be classified a "new" student? Most community college researchers focus solely upon the number of students who do not complete a degree or certificate and then fail to re-enroll in the next semester. But at Macomb Community College, we recently found that while 25% of the regular student body who failed to return from one semester to the next, over 60% responded in a telephone survey that they intended to re-enroll in some future semester

In the same vocational classroom, today's community instructor is also likely to encounter other students with very different aspirations and motivations. Many older, already working adults return to community colleges with no other purpose than to complete a limited number of courses that would improve their relative position within the workforce. Many are extremely motivated to succeed, but, because of deficiencies in their previous formal schooling, often lack basic academic skills and the equally important knowledge of how to successfully access essential campus services, from counseling and child care, to financial aid and tutorial programs. Interestingly, rather than integrate these students into the life of the campus, often they are programmatically marginalized. Programs funded through the Workforce Investment Act, for example, sponsor some of these students, or other governmental programs sponsor some of them. Many of these programs have a work-based component. Most of these programs are maintained outside of the traditional vocational programs, and students are never linked into the traditional programs to continue their job training after they find a job. Institutions find that traditional occupational programs cannot easily deal with the needs of these individuals and establish them as separate entities within the community college ( Jacobs, 2000a ).

There are individuals who come to community colleges only for vocational courses, but they generally are not younger people in search of their first career. This growing group of community college students have been termed "reverse transfers," individuals who already hold a college degree but are attending a community college solely to acquire specific occupational skills ( Quinley & Quinley, 1998 ). Yet, most of these individuals attend non-credit classes in part because the tradition credit programs are inflexible to their specific needs. The previously cited ACT-AACC survey of 100,000 students is the first to attempt to collect evidence on continuing education students. It found 28% of the non-credit students attending community colleges already had earned bachelors, masters, or doctoral degrees. Little attention has been paid by traditional vocational education to this growing group of students ( Phillippe & Valiga, 2000 ).

In brief, post-secondary vocational education has been unable to capitalize on the growing number of individuals-both from the secondary schools and older adults-who have elected to return to school, even though their intentions differ. For the secondary students, the object is eventual employment in occupations that require a four-year degree-and they will therefore tend to by-pass traditional, terminal post-secondary occupational programs that fail to prepare them for that degree. The object of the returning adults, by contrast, is the acquisition of specific skills in the shortest possible time. They have little interest in vocational education's structured degree programs. Because post-secondary vocational education has been unable to successfully address the needs of these two groups, it has been unsuccessful in increasing its enrollments. This is particularly disturbing because for both of these groups, the real interest in post-secondary education has been to increase income-which post-secondary occupation education does appear to deliver. From both national studies and from state and local studies carried out with new data sets, the evidence is that individuals with associate degrees earn from 20 to 40% more than individuals with high school diplomas; even those with certificates earn perhaps 5 to 20% more than high school graduates ( Grubb, 1999 ).

Workplace Changes and Vocational Education

The other student market that has eluded post-secondary occupational education is incumbent worker training. One major trend in the "new economy" is significant growth in company-sponsored tuition programs and specific training and education programs ( Osterman, 1999 ). Many companies have turned to community colleges because of their proximity and flexibility. Post-secondary vocational education has only marginally benefited from the enormous growth in incumbent worker training. Survey data indicate that over 90% of all community colleges engage in customized training ( Grubb, 1996 ). In some industries, firms have developed a regular pattern of using customized training programs at community colleges ( Dougherty & Bakia, 1999 ).

Many of the customized training programs use traditional community college vocational instructors; however, in most cases these programs are designed and developed by administrative units that operate independently from traditional vocational education divisions. They are often reflected on organizational charts by such titles as "Customized Training Services" or "Continuing Education," and they work closely with the local business community. Often, the staff assigned to these units have high visibility within the private sector community and maintain the ties between the institution and the local private sector. The development of these units has been documented many times-including their lack of sustained ties with traditional post-secondary vocational education ( Grubb, Badway, Bell, Bragg, & Russman, 1997 ). As a result, not only are program enrollments adversely affected, but also the transmission of leading technology issues, implementation issues, and individual corporate contacts are made readily available to the faculty within a community college's traditional program.

It is unlikely that large numbers of incumbent workers will be attracted to traditional vocational programs. Incumbent workers are unlikely to be attracted to introductory courses of the community college programs. While they sometimes need cross training or specific skills training, they are normally attracted back to school to increase their understanding of specific competencies or to further specialize in particular areas that are often beyond the capacity of traditional vocational programs designed to prepare students for entry level work.

However, the problem is not simply the growth of customizing training units outside of traditional vocational education. Increasingly, employers are demanding new curricula that include skill standards and perhaps even vendor-specific certifications that are not typically included in traditional curricula. These employers simply do not trust the traditional, faculty-developed curriculum will meet their needs. Especially in the area of information technology, these certification programs have become important new forms of occupational education for thousands of adults seeking career changes ( ). The National Skill Standards Board ( 1999 ) release of the manufacturing skills standards also underscores the desire of employers to encourage the development of curricula responsive to their own needs, not waiting for educational institutions to develop programs.

The impact of these new forms of credentials is only beginning to be felt at community colleges. But they call into question not only traditional occupational programs and courses, but who bears responsibility for producing the curriculum and the role of the faculty in the assessment processes. The traditional model of the faculty developing the curriculum and assessing student progress with tests of their own design, leading to the award of a degree or certificate is being substituted for one in which industry develops the skill needs and even the certification test-which becomes the standard for the job. In this approach, faculty teach to the standard and "coach" students through an externally developed test. They are not part of curriculum development or validation process. It will require a different perspective for vocational education-not entirely foreign, since many parts of allied health programs have used this approach. National post-secondary occupational organizations have recognized this trend and are attempting to develop institutional alternatives, but the bulk of the curriculum process is embedded in more traditional concepts ( Carter, 2000 ).

Finally, there is the dilemma of how well post-secondary education is tied to its secondary counterparts. On the one hand, there is little recognition on the secondary side that a tie should exist, let alone the understanding that post-secondary's role with industry might place it in a position to give information and direction to the development of secondary vocational programs. Especially at the state level, many secondary vocational educators appear determined to maintain as much control over Perkins Act funds and as a consequence appear oblivious to the need for a post-secondary component in most all of their occupational programs. Perhaps because of this, ties between the two subsystems are fragile, at best. Tech Prep programs and some School to Work programs have served to encourage such connections, but their impact has been extremely limited. One of the hallmarks of these programs has been articulation agreements where normally some credits are granted by the post-secondary institution for high school work. National studies of even the most effective Tech Prep programs revealed little actual use of these agreements by students ( Bragg, et al., 1999 ; Hershey, 1998 ). Still, Tech Prep may be providing the first institutional framework in which entrenched barriers between secondary and post-secondary systems can be broken down, offering great promise for the future ( Jacobs, 2000a ).

In part the problem is the lack of secondary vocational students because much of that education has been targeted to the "non-college bound." Thus, secondary vocational education students do not move into complimentary post-secondary programs.

On the other hand, many post-secondary educators remain aloof and isolated from their secondary counterparts, refusing to notice the changes and developments within the secondary system. While programs such as Tech Prep have improved the situation, the two subsystems remain far too separated, with little recognition that many of the students overlap. Without these feeder systems, post-secondary Tech Prep cannot easily appeal to young students within community colleges and is left with an adult market.

A New Occupational Education?

The picture of post-secondary occupational education is not entirely without success stories. One bright spot in this dismal landscape has been in the allied health and nursing areas. Adults, many single heads of household, return to school, master complex math and science classes, and then take a demanding health care program. If they are successful in getting admitted to the program (many of these programs are in such high demand that enrollment is restricted) and complete it, there is an over 90% certainty that they will pass the state-administered comprehensive nursing examinations and be licensed to practice. Anyone who questions the value of post-secondary occupational education in the lives of people should attend the nursing pinning ceremony at a local community college. These are moving testimonials to the success of community colleges in providing valuable job skills for people. These programs provide entire nursing staffs for many communities in the United States-over 60% of the new nurses in the United States have received their education at a community college ( National Council of State Boards of Nursing, 1999 ).

Similar programs can be found in many other specific areas. Automotive service technician programs designed to combine the interests of automobile manufacturers with labor demands of local dealers can qualify many young people for employment and establish them in a career pathway for high-skill, high-pay work. Moreover, these programs are successful in combining secondary and post-secondary degree programs and a seamless transition into the world of work. They also have a strong business-led organization-Automotive Youth Educational Systems (AYES)-that aids in guiding the process for most dealership programs ( Automotive Youth Educational Systems, 1999 ).

Another major trend has been the growth of "special programs or projects" within community colleges that maintain the characteristics of the "new vocationalism." These programs promote academic and vocational integration, emphasize student success in careers, and provide individualized counseling. Many leave open the baccalaureate option and develop a curriculum that reflects input from the private sector. Many of these programs are in such highly specialized areas as biotechnology, environmental sciences, high-level computer aided design, and information technologies. Some have been funded not by Perkins funds, but through the innovative Advanced Technology Education (ATE) program administered by the National Science Foundation. While many of the "new vocationalism" programs are extremely costly to maintain, and often receive some criticism from their institutions for draining off funds from the "regular" programs, they do result in students getting jobs in highly skilled, well-paid occupations. Many of these require a four-year college degree, and are the envy of the rest of the institution. ( Grubb, et al., 1997 ).

Another significant area for post-secondary occupational administration are the cooperative education and apprenticeship training programs. Institutions can capitalize on their relationships with local firms and obtain not only work-based learning experiences for students, but often establish long term employment pipelines into firms. Both young and mature students are attracted to these programs because students specifically learn to do jobs. These programs maintain good enrollment, particularly during periods of relatively high unemployment. In addition, cooperative education programs have close ties with four-year institutions that practice cooperative education; thus making it possible for students to simultaneously achieve the twin goals of securing a high-paying job and a four-year degree. However, the programs are often considered costly to maintain by community colleges and therefore often not supported adequately.

In many of these new programs, there is recognition of the impact of pedagogy on the delivery of good post-secondary vocational education. Within the occupational areas of community colleges are some of the finest teachers who can interrelate classroom and practical hands-on learning experiences. As Grubb ( 1998 ) notes, "occupational teaching is rich and complex. It incorporates a greater variety of competencies than academic instruction, and it takes place in more varied settings including workshops with a bewildering variety of activities" ( p. 137 ). Many students, particularly those that did not do well in traditional lecture programs, can flourish and develop in courses that use hands-on learning. However, few community colleges, even those committed to curriculum integration concepts, have supported those teachers' occupational teaching styles or attempted to use them as models of student success for all teachers to follow. This may be a glaring "missed opportunity" in the area of post-secondary education.

Disciplines Within Vocational Education?

What holds back post-secondary occupational education? Why, in the past two decades of community college growth and expansion, have post-secondary vocational education programs stagnated or declined? Moreover, what can it be done that will aid in the process of restoring this important component of community colleges?

Part of the decline in relevancy for post-secondary vocational education rests in its failure to adopt an academic model to organize its knowledge. This has become a barrier to rapid changes in curriculum that can reflect the continuous changes in the work process. While the various academic disciplines-philosophy, economics, biology, etc.-are founded on permanent bodies of knowledge which claim no particular linkage with a specific vocation, the vocational disciplines-welding, accounting, machine tools, etc.-are particular technologies linked to an occupational process. As the process of work organization is altered, the specific technologies must change. Thus, the specific skills of welding not only change, but also the relationship of welding to the process of metal forming, even to the general production of the final good, might also be altered through new inventions and applications. The skills associated with the area are necessary to be learned and mastered, but whether these skills will lead to employment is altered by factors beyond the control of the learning institution. Thus, in the business area, shorthand remains a useful skill but as a condition for obtaining a clerical job , has almost disappeared.

Because academic disciplines have never claimed mastery is related to a specific practice of work, they often escape any need to define their relevance in terms of preparation for occupational achievement. That is not the case for occupational programs that justify their existence as relevant to students in obtaining an occupation. Thus, shifts in work processes and technology much more profoundly affect these areas. In brief, vocational education as a discipline is continually challenged to sort and re-sort its subject matter based on an external standard: mastering these skill sets will lead to a job . It is not timeless knowledge, but linked to specific process and technical change.

Furthermore, it is not simply mastering the technology that is important to vocational education students, but incorporating the particular processes embedded within the work organization of a firm. Computer Aided Design (CAD) is used in design, machine tool operations, film making, and other areas, but it is used differently within these industries. Thus, to learn CAD is to learn CAD as a particular tool with particular processes of work-based implementation that is necessary to master. To learn about the technology is also to know about the specific use of that technology within a particular cluster of firms or business organizations ( Arnsdorf & Jacobs, 1990 ). The recent Perkins Act use of the term "all aspects of the industry"-which has often meant that students in the construction trades might take courses about meeting environmental issues within construction-does consider this approach. However, only a small minority of programs are actually using this approach in the development of programs ( National Assessment of Vocational Education, 1994 ).

Some emerging technology areas such as informational technology complicate the issue further. It is common within this industry to find communication devices and computer protocol software that is unique to specific applications and increasingly controls the specific processes used at the workplace. It is certainly possible to master the skills of a computer operating system, but it makes almost no sense to learn this process unless one learns Windows or Microsoft Word. In other words, the wall between training and education becomes permeable when specific licensed vendor applications replace or control the general system ( Adelman, 2000 ).

Different companies adopt these vendor products and then search for individuals who have mastered the technology. Thus, for a community college to teach CAD programs that will be successful in developing the skills students will need to work within the auto industry, they must refer to the specific systems that are used by the Original Equipment Manufacturers of General Motors, Ford Motor, and DaimlerChrysler. While learning one application establishes the basis for learning the other, it very difficult to get a job unless an individual masters at least one vendor-specific software package. For community colleges it means maintaining more than one set of equipment and instructors capable of teaching different systems further complicating the delivery of occupation education.Not only are technologies implemented differently within individual firms, but also much technology is dependent on process and implementation within the parameters of a specific industry. A characteristic of private capital is for firms to distribute themselves within clusters of firms who develop and utilize similar products and implement similar processes to make products for their customers. These "clusters" of firms develop their own labor markets, with specific skill set demands and even occupational names and titles. For example, an electronics technician within the informational technology industry in northwest Washington will be asked to undertake different tasks than an electronics technician working in the hospitality industry in the South ( Rosenfeld, 2000 ). Thus, relevance of subject matter has an important community or spatial dimension. Those who fashion a vocational curriculum must understand what are the commonly agreed on local private sector distinctions in the use of technology. For post-secondary occupational education, the issue must be relevance within a specific local industry or local process, since it is reasonable to assume that most students are being educated for jobs within their communities.Thus there is an often-overlooked distinction between vocational education and many traditional forms of liberal arts education. The specific "body of knowledge" to be mastered in vocational education is far more transitional and dependent on specific contextual situations than non-vocational programs. More importantly, while the academic disciplines control the body of knowledge they teach, the vocational curriculum is determined by the demands of stakeholders outside of the institutions -firms, students, and professional associations. The rapid and continuous change in technology requires considerable effort to maintain currency within the specific skill sets to be mastered, the implementation paths selected by the industry, and the individual vendor offerings. This is not an easy task. Yet, in almost all post-secondary institutions the organization of vocational education departments mimics their academic counterparts. Thus, a community college may maintain departments of welding, floral design, or marketing, giving the false illusion that the knowledge contained within them is somehow as stable and under faculty control as it is the case in academic departments.

The fact that vocational curriculum is externally dictated makes the issue of "maintaining relevance" central to the success of post-secondary occupational education, even more so than that of secondary education, which can claim only to teach some introductory or basic fundamentals. At the post-secondary level there is the belief, maintained widely by teachers, administrators, and students, that mastering of this information should lead to a job. Few people take advanced welding classes so they can increase their capability of making welded Christmas presents for their relatives. Thus, unlike the academic area, it is essential that whatever be taught meets a relevance test that is externally validated.

In summary, the disciplines of post-secondary vocational education suffer from two overriding problems. The first is how vocational education is structured within the traditional community college. As described here, post-secondary vocational education differs from post-secondary academic education in its need to be relevant and to develop specific occupational skills. Yet, post-secondary vocational education operates within an overall administrative structure that limits its ability to be nimble and adaptable to the needs of the marketplace because it is expected to behave and function like the academic program areas.

Because vocational education programs are embedded in a traditional education bureaucracy, it is difficult to make the rapid changes required if these programs are to be kept current with industry. Many programs simply cannot keep up to date. One result is the continued offering of courses and programs for which there is little industry demand even though there may be significant occupational openings. For example, there are well known shortages of electronic technicians, but enrollments in electronic programs continue to decline. Machining programs are being terminated in many community colleges while firms are hiring college degree individuals with computer skills and teaching them to become CNC programmers. While many colleges struggle with low demand and low enrollment programs, demand for industry specific training in emerging industries is growing. This limits the capacity of post-secondary occupational education to adapt and meet the needs of industry and students. Effective occupational education program development requires the capacity to specialize forums and focus on the core competencies to fit the local labor market needs.

The second overriding problem facing post-secondary vocational education is maintaining administrative and faculty curriculum currency. Faculty need to continually update their industry skills and knowledge, and they need the time to do it. Administrators need to know the technologies sufficiently to manage the development of these areas. Presently, most post-secondary vocational teachers do this on their own time or through extremely intensive use of their work time, and many simply cannot keep up. Administrators rarely receive any specific training in how to manage occupational programs except for in-services on Perkins Act requirements.

Thus, the specific demands on occupational education to be relevant and specific are unlike their academic counterparts. Yet, deployment of teachers and departmental structures are always similar. Time is needed to continually update skills and knowledge of the industry. Moreover, it may not be wise to maintain many programs where it will be difficult to keep pace with industry changes. Thus, why should multiple levels of vocational courses be taught-each given the same weight-in areas where there are few jobs or private sector demand? There is every indication that demand for industry specific training in newly defined functional categories will grow, not diminish. The lack of capacity to cope with these changes is the fundamental reason why vocational education on the post-secondary level continues to decline and become even more irrelevant. It lacks the institutional ability to specialize and develop, maintain, and change its core competencies to respond to constantly evolving local labor market needs.

These pressures have always existed in post-secondary education, but there are two important trends, which are exacerbating the problem. First is the commitment made by community colleges to be comprehensive institutions of learning. Not only has this meant the ability to provide enormous breadth of instruction programs to students and the community, but colleges take on extensive functions and missions-such as economic development-which strain resources and result in institutional conflict ( Bailey & Averianova, 1999 ). For post-secondary education this has meant offering many programs-in health, business, and manufacturing-that require a vast amount of specific knowledge, technical equipment, and high maintenance costs. In large community colleges, there may be 50-75 separate occupational programs to staff and maintain. The occupational dean is forced into the unenviable position of continually dividing up scarce resources among growing numbers of programs, resulting in community college offerings which are unfocused, undefended, and unattractive to the local demand. The strategic response, taken by many thoughtful deans, has been the development of more "partnership" programs with local business and industry-permitting their needs to drive program changes ( Petty, 1999 ). Yet, this is a demanding strategy in staff time and energy. The price paid for comprehensiveness is very steep in post-secondary occupational education.

Compounding these problems is the growing call for accountability. Occupational educators are now forced to justify their programs within newly developed standards that are producing stress and concern ( Mitchell, 1999 ). Especially in programs sponsored by the Workforce Investment Act and the Temporary Aid to Needed Families (TANF) legislation, the demands on programs to produce job placements and the maintenance of jobs are bringing about enormous strain among the post-secondary units. The debates over accountability have exposed the weakness of the comprehensive approach-and present post-secondary administrators with a stark choice: either they can refuse to undertake some of the activities or concentrate on fewer programs and utilize resources to support them. With these programs not only is the curriculum developed and controlled from the outside; so, too, are program measurement and the process of instruction.

The Emergence of the Sub-Baccalaureate Labor Market

For occupational educators at the community college level, the central area of concern are those occupations which require more than a high school degree but less than a four-year degree: the sub-baccalaureate labor market ( Grub, 1996 ). Most of the national literature on education and training change tends to reflect the demands of the "information economy" or the "high performance workplace" ( Capelli, et al., 1997 ). However, there are particular characteristics which are important to understand among firms that principally hire individuals with sub-baccalaureate backgrounds.

Most importantly is the sub-baccalaureate labor market, which is extremely local in its skill needs, hiring and assessment practices, and wage structures. With the exception of the health care industry-which is heavily licensed-or large unionized industries-where there may exist pattern bargaining contracts that define skill requirements-the sub-baccalaureate labor market is characterized by highly differentiated practices of a number of firms. Employers have skill needs which are highly specific to their industry and the labor market they face. Much of this is learned on the job and within the sector, not outside of it. As a result, management of these firms is much more likely to start a worker at a low wage and advance them when "they see how they perform" within the system. Management depends on references from friends and families for their employees, have recently used contingent workers and employment agencies to screen workers, or hire from each other. Generally, the firms are small and have modest needs for workers. They cannot afford human resource departments nor do they conduct internal training, yet they often need highly skilled, specialized workers. ( Grubb, 1996 ).

A second important dimension of the sub-baccalaureate labor market concerns the validation of the skills for future employees. These firms are particularly concerned that any employee has a knowledge base that can be demonstrated on the job-they are particularly suspicious of degrees or other academic standards. Even for those who have earned a community college associate degree, there is an issue of relevance. How does the firm know that the students have mastered relevant skills? For groups of these firms, educational measurements of success may be less important than some demonstration of competence through a certificate or assessment test. Since they are local, references from particular instructors and other firms become an important way to qualify these individuals. Learning on the job is assumed, but there must be some skilled credentials to know what people can do. It is these firms that have often provided a major impetus to the use of such non-degree certifications as industry based skill standards.

Especially in this sub-baccalaureate labor market, employers want to hire workers with basic skills. Workers will start at lower wages, but if they succeed in the workplace, there is a fast track for advancement. This may entail further schooling and promotions as the firm continues to advance the worker. But the initial job is often modest, and the employer wants to "look at" how the employee can perform on the job. Thus, there are many very specific and important things that workers can learn only on the job; the issue is, how can the classroom work of vocational education mesh with the learning acquired at the worksite and good liberal arts skills? Outside the allied health and nursing programs, while college programs can determine some forms of placement, the majority of the vocational programs have little real placement to show students.

The failure of vocational education to have a strong work-based component is very damaging to the acceptance of the courses of study by employers and the willingness of employers to hire students with certificates and degrees from these institutions. Thus, outside the apprenticeship programs and cooperative education programs, it is not clear as to the precise economic significance of a vocational education degree for students or employers. Unless individual teachers maintain specific ties with specific firm owners-in a real sense continually marketing their programs and their students-there is little recognition for their graduates.

Some of the concepts of "new" post-secondary occupational education have been developed to tie specific programs to the needs of these sub-baccalaureate firms. Working with firms, some community colleges have designed their programs so that students may "exit" the program and enter firms at different levels in the firms. These have forced the institutions and the firms to develop intermediary organizations to coordinate the activities ( Jacobs, 2000b ). Others have conducted some innovative work with new forms of college portfolios and comparable forms of assessment that can document for these employers what students have been learning on the job ( Mathias, 2000 ). New curriculum arrangements such as the Associate Degree in Applied Science permits a student to exit into the sub-baccalaureate labor market with a degree, which can subsequently provide the basis for a future four-year degree ( Mundhenk & Burger, 1999 ). The more community colleges pursue these relationships, the more they appear better able to develop programs that meet the needs of firms while obtaining jobs and careers for their students.

What is to be Done

If these are some of the problems, how do we arrive at solutions? First, it is necessary to recognize that the context of the activity demands specific programmatic strategies, while broader changes need to be undertaken. While it is tempting to call for "systemic change" and propose fascinating new "paradigm shifts," within the present policy climate such temptations are not only too expensive but also unworkable. Thus, the following assumes major institutional players; present funding streams, and federal priorities remain the same.

Within this context, some short-term steps include:

Concentrate and focus on local sub-baccalaureate labor market needs . There should be a concerted effort within post-secondary occupational education to develop niche market programs rather than comprehensive programs. The niches will be determined by the particular makeup of the local community served by the institution. This may not correspond to the specific service district area, but more closely approximate the regional labor market. Technical training and specialization should only occur within these easily identified clusters of firms, and, if possible, with their direct involvement in the process through a work-based component. Anything less is simply unacceptable for the institutions. The present "disciplines" should be repackaged and reconfigured along the specific needs of the industries, relying on industry developed skill standards within these disciplines.

In all these cases, care should be taken to ensure that critical thinking competencies, communication, and math are thoroughly integrated within the course perspectives. These will be necessary for those students who wish to pursue a baccalaureate degree.

If at all possible, with the aid of the local industry, career pathways need to be constructed which permit students to advance into a four-year degree consistent with their occupational interests. The goal of the program is to prepare students not for entry-level work within a cluster of firms, but a career that could include advanced degrees. Students may choose not to continue, but the pathway needs to be in place.

The goal is also to distinguish post-secondary occupational education from its secondary counterpart. The task for the post-secondary component is technical competence within a career pathway. It is assumed that some basic orientation to those careers is part of secondary level education. This will free secondary vocational education to be a broader to work processes and occupational goals-and not saddle these institutions with narrow advanced technical training. But this approach means incorporating a far greater skill set within the post-secondary curriculum and the concentration of job-related technical skills.

There are two exceptions to this orientation. First, adults reentering the labor market or coming to post-secondary education as a "second chance" system should be able to use the expertise of post-secondary education to get work. Programs may be non-credit but very targeted at getting a job. Post-secondary administrators in institutional units far more related to specific firms and their needs should maintain these programs. Students who have found jobs can be candidates for regular degree programs, but the goal of these initial programs is entry-level work not requiring any particular college credit.

The second exception is program development for institutions that either do not serve a particular labor market or are in rural and urban settings with very fragile and small labor markets. In these situations, it is perhaps more useful that post-secondary vocational education become a place where broad orientations to work are taught and mastered rather than a narrow job focus.

Integrate activities within broader workforce development focus . Recognition that post-secondary vocational education plays a role within a broader category of workforce and economic development is needed. Workforce development, in the broadest sense, is the process of preparing the human capital for productive work within a community. In the present application it means community colleges preparing individuals for work under federal programs such as the Workforce Investment Act and the TANF legislation. Vocational education is preparation of individuals with specific occupational skills. It is the specific role of the community college to develop its community workforce and economy. Programs include those that serve specific firms, train incumbent workers (customized), provide counseling (One Stop Centers), or target specific groups such as workers with disabilities. Individuals with very specialized skills often develop these programs within institutions. These are functions for which post-secondary vocational education can provide resources but which they should not attempt to lead because these programs require specific administrative skill sets and organizational positions that would dilute their main mission. Post-secondary education needs to provide the knowledge base of what the local firms want and support the development of these targeted program.

Within this suggestion there is an important formulation. Vocational education is part of workforce development-a particularly important subcomponent. Workforce development increases the performance of individuals at the workplaces. This entails a variety of other activities targeting both individuals and companies. Knowledge of the job is an important component and that is the task of vocational education.

Maintain ties with secondary vocational education. One of the most important strategies for post-secondary education to add value is through close ties with secondary school systems, and, specifically, with secondary vocational programs. Tech Prep would appear to be a natural program to broaden and expand. However, instead of attempting to articulate programs in broad "disciplines," i.e., accounting, machining, etc., it might be more useful to structure relationships around real careers within the specific industries found within the community. The knowledge gained by the post-secondary educators' close interaction with the local firms can then be used to reformulate the secondary programs. It may be possible to add a work-based component to the programs so that high school students and their parents will see a real pathway into the world of work. The combination of secondary and post-secondary systems will then be available to penetrate the labor markets and develop a career path for students who follow a specific program. This would make these programs extraordinarily more attractive.Part of building this relationship is the recognition of specific responsibilities and roles for secondary and post-secondary vocational education. In large measure, the goal of secondary vocational education is to provide entry level and foundation competencies for broad career pathways within local industries. The post-secondary component should build on these with more specialized courses that, if possible, should include a work-based component. This formulation of courses means that the two parts of the system need to target their activities: secondary needs to be broad, emphasizing foundation skills; post-secondary needs to be advanced, teaching skills which lead to real career pathways in local industry.

Understand the importance of college completion . The success of any program is a result of meeting customer needs. If most young students attend post-secondary education because they want a four-year college degree as a means of obtaining a secure job, it is critical to consider this motivation when designing programs and courses in vocational education. It is not wise to build programs around the assumption that a college degree doesn't matter as much as skills-something many vocational educators believe. Many post-secondary vocational educators undermine the value of the liberal arts and four-year, degree programs to their students, evidently insensitive to student aspirations. Sometimes this occurs in a very crude fashion when vocational instructors will advise their students not to take the mandatory liberal arts programs until after they have completed their technical course requirements. Rather than disparage liberal arts education, vocational educators ought to help students see how their vocational education program fits together with liberal arts for a coherent program of study.

In most business programs, completion of a four-year degree is mandatory to achieve any form of career pathway. The programs should be designed and marketed with that in mind. Thus, in these areas the issue of articulation is really with a four-year university or college. This orientation should also mean more rapid adoption of curriculum integration tactics and techniques, and perhaps even lead to the realization that the teaching skills of the vocational instructors have a specific place within the programs of study.

Staff development of post-secondary administrators . One aspect of the organizational problems confronting post-secondary vocational education is the lack of local administrative and faculty leadership to manage the process. If there is a difference between vocational education program management and the traditional liberal arts programs as maintained in this article, then how are administrators trained to understand that they must focus their energies on serving local firms in the community? In general, state Perkins requirements call for vocational education administrators to be certified, but that normally means to have a vocational background. This may be necessary, but not sufficient for the new demands of program management and alignment that now will be part of administering these areas. Post-secondary vocational administrators come up from the ranks with little appreciation of these dilemmas.Who will train the vocational administrator of the future? Since many schools of education have virtually ceased supplying any post-secondary vocational instructors, they are probably not good sources. It is more likely that the training and education practices of leading companies may be potential models for the administrators to follow. Firms that have successfully redefined their organization and culture are models for post-secondary vocational education, their human resource departments and related divisions sources of insight and information for community college PSOE programs.


These are some of the core issues that must be considered in reinventing vocational education on the post-secondary level. What has been disappointing is how little any of these have been taken up by those in the field-either in the occupational education or community college leadership. In a period when knowledge and skills are important competitive assets-post-secondary education has a vital role in developing a knowledge chain of educational institutions relating to the local firms they serve. Post-secondary occupational education can and should be in the lead, forging this new relationship. Fighting over the small amount of money from the Perkins Act and attempting to offer large numbers of unfocused programs does not help post-secondary occupational educators deal with this priority. It is only when vocational education leaders can shed their academic orientation and see their role in the development of human capital will there be a future for post-secondary occupational education. Let's hope others realize this before it is too late.


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JIM JACOBS is Director of the Center for Workforce Development and Policy at Macomb Community College, and Associate Director of the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, 14500 E. 12 Mile Road, Warren, MI 48088, [E-mail: James@macomb.cc.mi.us ]. Dr. Jacobs research interests are workforce development, occupational forecasting, and urban economic development.