What happened to vocational school?

America could learn from Norway’s approach to the trades—and our own history

trade schools

Photo: Ed Castillo / Flickr
Many important jobs require a different kind of education than is offered in U.S. high schools and universities.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

When you research education in Norway, vocational or trade schools are on par with academic education; about half of Norwegian students follow this path. Vocational education incorporates academic studies for the first two years, but the other two years are targeted to learn the skills in one’s chosen vocation.

Vocational education is so respected that Norway has a system to ensure its success, running from the top strata of the government to the local level. Everyone understands is importance, and the National Council for Vocational Education and Training has the ear of the prime minister.

To ensure that they stay on the cutting edge, the advisory councils for vocational education and training work with the nine programs dedicated to those who wish to pursue a vocational path. The National Curriculum Committee focuses on the substance of what is being taught within each trade, while the local county vocational training committees work with individuals in an advisory manner.

But what has happened to U.S. vocational schools? To answer this question, I started to reflect on people I have known. I immediately thought about Elsie Willumsen, someone I had known for decades before I saw her wonderful fashion illustrations from 1945 to 1946, created while she was a student at Textile High School in New York City.

Willumsen’s meticulous details, use of color, and dynamic brushwork achieved a level of sophistication unseen today. Part of this was due to the style of the time, but also the human touch and care in her work. Some of her illustrations even have swatches attached to them, adding another layer, giving the viewer texture and touch.

We look back on this level of skill with admiration. Willumsen recently had some of her illustrations on display in a Brooklyn accessory store. The proprietor wanted to purchase them, but they were not for sale.

Willumsen was immediately hired after graduating, which seems remarkable in comparison with the prospects new graduates face in today’s job market.

When I was in high school in New York City during the 1970s, trade schools at high school level were going through a rough time, as was the entire city. Schools like Grady, which taught machinery and more, and Sarah J. Hale, which focused on pre-nursing, were becoming dumping grounds for students with behavioral problems. The results were horrific, and schools where people could learn a trade that would employ them directly after graduation either ceased to exist or were severely wounded. Only a few can be found today.

The focus on pushing everyone toward a college education further damaged our vocational schools, while increasing bias against those who work with their hands. Yet, as the cost of a college education has become exorbitant, certain skilled jobs cannot be filled. This hurts everyone.

But now things in part are changing for the better. A good example is Claus Meyer, a Danish entrepreneur, who is the dynamo behind New York’s Great Northern Food Hall. Meyer has brought vocational schools to New York’s forefront, even catching the attention of The New York Times. 

From the beginning, Meyer had a vision to create his own culinary trade school with a restaurant attached. Believing that food is a catalyst for social change, he planned to build it in one of the most needy communities of New York City. He set up the Brownsville Community Culinary Center, funded by Melting Pot, Meyer’s non-profit organization. The center offers free 40-week courses in the culinary arts, with 48 students in each session.

The center states a clear mission: “The Brownsville Community Culinary Center is committed to offering healthy, accessible cuisine to neighborhood residents through our eatery. Our culinary training program educates and inspires participants to excel in the food-service industry. We offer services that support our program participants as they cultivate and work toward their dreams. The BCCC will serve as a forum through which the Brownsville neighborhood can address and organize around issues of food injustice. We strive to collaborate with resident-led initiatives.”

Lofty yet achievable goals. One hopes that the strong social and educational convictions of this dedicated Scandinavian will be a catalyst for New York and beyond. We can learn from Meyer, the Norwegian trade school model, and our own vocational educational history.

But for trade schools to make a much-needed comeback, a reset is required. It is important for us as a society to adjust our mindset to an earlier time before we diminished the value of certain jobs and those who do them. All work and workers deserve to be respected for society to succeed, something for all of us to ponder as we look to the future.

This article originally appeared in the September 6, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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