Blue Corduroy in the 21st Century

In my small farming community in the 70s and 80s, students in the public schools could study vocational agriculture (“Vo-Ag”) as an elective, while others pursued technical training at a county-wide vocational school. My friends who took Vo-Ag simultaneously joined the Future Farmers of America (FFA), sporting deep blue corduroy jackets with gold embroidery for weekly meetings and annual awards ceremonies. In most instances, they lived on the family farm, and they were studying the science and technology that would shape the future of the agriculture industry.

Twenty-five years later, only a fraction of the kids from Vo-Ag find themselves in farming. But a shortage of skilled tradespeople to fill good paying jobs with manufacturers has rekindled interest in secondary education alternatives to the “college prep” model many of us have assumed is the best route to success for the next generation. Two recent presentations sponsored by the Livonia Chamber of Commerce opened my eyes to ongoing efforts here in Michigan to emphasize and energize career and technical education.

At one event, German-born executives employed by American manufacturing companies provided an overview of the “Dual” education system that has operated throughout Germany since the 1970s. A collaboration of educators, business, and government, the system promotes early and significant exposure to workplace training and experience. The system co-exists with more traditional education models, and students retain the opportunity to “cross-over” between the systems as late as college.

At a second event, representatives from the Michigan Advanced Technician Training (MAT2) Program introduced their program and the opportunities it provides Michigan students. Funded by participating businesses and influenced by the German model, MAT2 is a three-year training program resulting in an advanced Associate’s degree. Students rotate time between college study (with all tuition paid by the sponsoring employer) and paid on-the-job training. After completing the program, the student is guaranteed a job with the sponsor and in return pledges to work with the employer for at least two years. More information can be found on their website.

If you know a student eager to enter the workforce without a four-year degree, or if your company might benefit from taking a more active role in training its next generation of employees, I encourage you to explore this type of programming. And while you’re at it, give props to FFA, going strong since 1928, blue jackets and all.

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