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Taking the 'Middle Skills' Path: The Role of Community Colleges

Jennifer Martin

The alumni magazine of my local community college recently published an article focusing on students who had gained the education needed for "middle skills" jobs, what we used to call "blue collar" work. The cover photo of the woman in a hard hat caught my attention. The featured alumna was a former teacher, Lily Landau, who had returned to community college to retrain for a new career as an electrician. My guess is that she studied alongside many of my former students, and that they, like her, were looking for the training that would give them "the shortest route to a paycheck."

Now that high schools here have largely dismantled such vocational training, it seems that our community colleges are picking up the slack. Courses for work in traditional trades and medical technology are increasingly popular, and folks with these skills are in high demand. It seems to me there is real opportunity for the education community to address the long-standing social prejudices and institutional barriers that have kept women and minorities out of the better-paying, often unionized, trades. (Landau was often the only woman in her electrical classes.) By encouraging interested young women and students of color to undertake studies in these fields, we would be offering them a path that allows for a prosperous and secure future. Trades jobs often have the double advantage of paying well and being difficult to send off-shore.

At my high school, many of the college-bound kids are taking classes at community college in senior year to enrich their high school experience. Others want to get freshman year requirements out of the way, so they can focus on their key interests more fully when they go off to college. Perhaps we should be broadening this opportunity so that high school students who want a future in a trade can take community college classes, too.

And, maybe I'll go back myself! In the article, Landau says she finds being an electrician gives her "a better work-life balance" than teaching did.

Jennifer Martin, an English teacher at Wootton High School in Rockville, Md., has taught nearly every grade of middle and high school at every skill level, from special education inclusion to advanced placement.

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