But Who Will Fix My Plumbing?

by Robert S. Kellogg

The popular press and television newscasts bombard us daily with their coverage of Internet gurus who have sold millions of dollars worth of stock in companies that deliver goods and services via the Web.

Yet some old-time investors, such as Omaha billionaire Warren Buffett, have steadfastly refused to jump onto this roller coaster. Buffett, one of the world's richest persons, says he doesn't understand these so-called dot-com companies and will not buy something he doesn't understand. He thinks we should stick to investing in businesses that are basic to our daily lives. Given Wall Street's experiences during recent months, could he be right?

Some disagree with the investment approach of the Wizard of Omaha, yet there is a worthwhile message for public school leaders in his words and acts. Though we have put many of our resources into purchasing computers and aligning curriculum with state standards, clearly we are missing another important opportunities outside the dot-com world that can put our non-college-bound students into a profession where they can make a very good living. It is the high-paid world of building trades where present workers are nearing retirement age and where no one is in line to take over these excellent career opportunities.

Trade Skills

This point was driven home to me recently when my wife and I were eating breakfast in a neighborhood restaurant. Seated nearby were two older gentlemen who were discussing their businesses. One was a painter, the other worked in construction. As I joined in, both asked me why the schools were not preparing more students for the high-paying jobs in the building trades. I did not have an answer for these hard-working people.

I have thought about that conversation several times since that morning. I thought back to my own experiences as an educator. When I first came to my current educational service agency more than two years ago, I bought a home that needed a roof. I had to look for several weeks for someone willing to work on my one-story ranch-style home. Later, when my educational service agency needed a new entryway to solve a dangerous situation for staff and visitors, months passed before a willing contractor could be found.

Carpenters, roofers, electricians, masons and workers with other skills in the building trades are in short supply. Add auto mechanics, machinists, office workers and other blue-collar jobs to the shortage list and it becomes evident that our schools are working hard to prepare our students for college and the dot-com world, but we are not preparing students for some of the most important and rewarding work around. What does this mean to educational planners?

I believe it is critical that public schools consider trades training. Admittedly, programs like these are expensive. However, to reduce the cost of delivery for trades training, schools can partner with technical and community colleges, local builders and factory owners. Technical colleges bring access to training at a reduced cost, while collaborating with builders and manufacturers can provide training sites for students to earn credit or an hourly wage. County economic development office and chamber of commerce staff also can be key players in growing and supporting the kind of program needed for our students and our communities.

Stemming the Tide

My breakfast partners were right. For years, schools have failed to provide for the training needs of trades and industry. We have focused our efforts on preparing more students for college and have been successful at this.

Our omission has not only hurt our students' job opportunities, but many of our students have followed their post-secondary education opportunities out of our smaller, rural communities and into cities where these jobs are available. This out-migration has resulted in fewer families with children living in our communities and attending our schools. The decline in the number of young people also has deprived our businesses of a continuing source of labor that is needed to ensure the growth of business in our smaller and more rural communities.

If we can build partnerships with business owners and manufacturers, we can help solve some of the most troubling concerns of our cities and towns. Schools, businesses, technical colleges and other potential partners must begin to address the curricular deficiencies in ways that serve the taxpayers and citizens. If we can do this, we will all see the benefits for ourselves and see the impact on the next generation of our schools' graduates.

Robert Kellogg is administrator of Cooperative Educational Service Agency 8, 223 West Park St., Gillett, Wis. 54124. E-mail: bkellogg@cesa8.k12.wi.us