What Will Vocational Education Be If the Futurists Are Right?

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In this Insider

This Insider may be a bit shocking. As one of the vocational administrators expected to pave the way and provide leadership, I feel it is our responsibility to address the issue of the changing work world and come to grips with what the "revolution" could mean to vocational education. We must continue to ask questions such as these: What will the modern global marketplace demands require of future leaders? What should our roles be and how will we operated as leaders in the modern school to meet rapidly changing demands of high-tech companies? We are expected to be and want to be on the leading edge of technology, training, disciplines and delivery. Let's be sure that business and industry will continue to look to us for the progressive leadership that affords the training in skills for future employment--whatever the shape it may take.

Nancy Henry, field editor of this Insider, is school business administrator at Canadian Valley Area Vocational-Technical School in El Reno, Oklahoma. She also is Region IV director for the National Council of Local Administrators.

Have you heard there will be no jobs?

OK, that might sound extreme, but some futurists--those "experts" that make a living out of analyzing social, global and economic trends and predicting what the world will look like down the road--are saying that companies may no longer assign specific "jobs" to employees in the near future.

This philosophy has been bandied about since the mid-1980s. What I'd like for vocational-technical educators to do is consider these thoughts of futurists and think about how the concepts could apply in your school district, classroom or organization.

Opportunity or threat?

David Kearns, former CEO of Xerox and deputy secretary of education, suggested in 1988 this design for schools:

The modern school should look less like a factory and more like our best high-tech companies, with lean structures, flat organizations and decision making pushed to the lowest possible level ... (with) fewer middle managers, and those that remaining act(ing) less like controllers and more like colleagues and collaborators.

There are more than a few leaders in education who are searching for the right design and most efficient, effective structure for meeting the needs of customers and stakeholders of our learning institutions. Among some of those in this search mode, there is an unsettling sense that we may be searching for that which is unknown and foreign. That sense may hold more truth than we realize.

Kearns was correct when said schools should be less like factories and more like best-in-class, high-tech companies. The apparent irony is that the best high-tech companies are changing so rapidly that even the most progressive of learning institutions are apt to be left behind if they don't heed the faintly legible "handwriting on the wall" of business and industry and the changes in the nature of employment.

Since the Smith-Hughes Act was passed in 1917, vocational education has been tied to the job market. Vocational education has successfully helped people gain skills to be employable or assisted them in retooling their skills to meet the changing world of work. Our mission has been to help people enter the ranks of the gainfully employed, taxpaying citizens of this nation. That mission was and is based on this central premise: There are identifiable jobs for which people can gain employment.

A growing body of information indicates that "work" as we know it is vanishing. The premise of these thoughts is the phenomenon occurring in many large companies today. Big organizations, where the good jobs and careers used to be, are scaling back on employees to become more efficient. These large entities are unbundling activities and send them outside the company to be done by small firms that are taking over niche markets of profitability. …