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Leaders should highlight the benefits of 2-year vocational education

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
As Americans and Minnesotans, we do need to make things again, and we need leaders who are focused on making that happen.

My youngest son is a junior in high school and is in the midst of that difficult decision about what happens after he graduates next year. He has many great options before him, but there is clearly an assumption amongst most of those at his school and many of the people we know: If he wants to be successful, he needs to choose the path of a four-year college degree.

Jeff Johnson

That assumption — so common in Minnesota today — is simply wrong. 

For too long, success for our kids has been defined only as attending a four-year university after high school. While going to a four-year college is certainly a great plan for some kids, it’s not what’s best for others. This path should not be the only definition of success and there should never be a stigma surrounding those choosing vocational or technical training, apprenticeship programs or military service.

A tremendous need for skilled workers

In fact, we should be celebrating and congratulating those kids who are not bowing to societal pressure and are making a decision that is best for them and is serving a great need in our state.

We have a tremendous need for skilled workers in Minnesota — a helpful reality when the purpose is to earn a living. Usually these degrees are earned in two years as opposed to four or six, so earning an income starts sooner, graduates avoid the crushing student loan debt that currently haunts millions, the starting salaries for skilled trades are often much higher than for four-year college graduates, and finding a job is almost immediate.

So what can we do about it?

As a small-government conservative, I don’t believe the answer is a new spending program, although there is much that state government can do to connect our colleges, vocational schools and high schools with the business community to make certain our kids are learning the skills that will lead to successful careers. And I believe we should direct more student aid dollars to kids to use in the marketplace of higher education rather than to institutions to dole out as they see fit.

More important, however, a governor should use the bully pulpit to change this misguided attitude in Minnesota that a four-year degree is the best path to success for all of our kids. I will partner with vocational and technical schools across the state, hold events on their campuses and highlight the many amazing success stories of individual students.

Important to students and our communities

At the core of this issue is an economic reality: As Americans and Minnesotans, we do need to make things again, and we need leaders who are focused on making that happen. Having a governor committed to removing this inaccurate assumption about our kids and highlighting the many great options available to high school graduates will help our young people, help our communities, and ensure that Minnesotans will have the skills to succeed and strengthen our state.

The heartbeat of our economy must continue to be skilled trades, manufacturing, mining and farming. And, contrary to what others may think, that heartbeat is a human one — not a machine or a robot. As governor, I will ensure our kids and our communities know that success is defined by hard work and the pride that comes with it — regardless of what kind of work you do or where you went to school.

Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner, is a candidate for governor.


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Comments (16)


Somehow we have convinced 15-18 year old kids that working with your hands is bad. We have eliminated the trades from being taught in High School where young folks, who don’t want or can’t afford college, are exposed to a different life path. Young people can make a great living being an electrician, welder, plumber and any number of good honest jobs. Taking a shower after you come home from work, as opposed to before, is just fine also!!

Working with Hands

I think very highly of people who work in the trades, as they're the ones keeping society going.

That being said, if I had a child in high school with all the options ahead of them I'd recommend working towards a career where your body doesn't give out before Medicare and Social Security kick in. This advice would prove especially prescient if we continue the right-wing march we've been on for a generation and change. Being in a trade is a great deal if you can retire with a pension and insurance in your fifties, but the same people who preach against educational investments and push trade school also advocate for gutting unions, raising the retirement age, and making it increasingly difficult to provide one's family with affordable healthcare. In that backdrop, is it any surprise that parents desperately implore their children to do all they can to make it to the kinds of white-collar professions that sit as outliers in modern times as careers with some semblance of job security and a living wage?


Having people continue to train and work in the trades is important and should not be downplayed on its own merits. But those people must also be paid a living wage that will not only sustain them during their working years, but also enable them to anticipate a reasonable retirement - whether funded by savings, pension, some combination, or some other means.

Project Build Minnesota

I couldn't agree more. This is precisely why BATC-Housing First Minnesota has joined collaboratively with several other construction-related associations to create Project Build Minnesota. Our goal is to give young people exposure to and awareness of the tremendous career opportunities in the construction field (website at

Approximately 70% of Minnesota's high school seniors head to college, and some 30% drop out within the first year. More drop out in the second year. Only half of those who attend post-secondary education actually obtain their degree. Now these young people have student debt, perhaps lack a pathway toward productivity in society and may be stigmatized.

College is a wonderful path for many. But equally as important is the pride we can take in building things, creating community and providing a home to Minnesotans. Being an artisan and craftsman is a noble endeavor. Let's honor that by enhancing the opportunities for Minnesota's youth to learn about construction careers.

Put your money where.....

Drive around the metro area and visit our technical colleges: N and S Hennepin, White Bear Lake, Dakota County, Mpls and St Paul and you see one thing in common: most are 1970 to 1980 vintage projects when we truly invested in technical education. And while the buildings have held up well the programs are often not as well supported. I was a technical educator in the late 70's. Our rural district had 8 teachers in manufacturing, construction, transportation and communication classes for grades 7-12. There is one position remaining.

TPAW / Johnson GOP frugality did these programs in. When either tells us about how much they care for our future they really mean their future in a cushy, prestigious, high paying state job.

What About His Kids?

Jeff Johnson was a corporate lawyer for several years, and lives in an affluent suburb.What would his reaction be if one of his sons came home and announced that he would not be going to college, but would be enrolling in the HVAC program at a nearby technical college? Would he be "celebrating and congratulating" his son on this decision?

More benefits than meet the eye!

One can save $1000's of as you go through life, fixing, remolding, building, and repairing things around the house, not all repairs etc. require professionals, if you have a reasonable broad technical back ground. Folks also forget that many college degrees are "Technical" science in nature, Industrial technology, Electrical, Electronic, mechanical Engineering, Poly Tech, metallurgy etc. many of these are hands on. Folks also don't seem to understand that starting out in a technical role, does not preclude one from a higher education, college or professional, managerial leadership at a later date. There is no law that says, you can't start out as a welder and end up owning and running a metal fabrication company, or finding out you don't like it and moving into a business degree!


...a philosophy degree!

You had me until...

The author makes a lot of good arguments, until he gets to the point about diverting aid in the "marketplace of higher education" to let students have more control. It sounds to me like another misguided effort to undermine public institutions.

Undermine Public Institutions?

The real purpose probably is to line the pockets of the operators of for-profit vocational schools. The fact that public institutions would be undermined is just a fringe benefit.

That and...

It takes the onus off the ownership class to provide job training themselves by putting the responsibility on students to show up essentially fully trained. Apparently its now the taxpayers responsibility to ensure that employers can dismantle their basic training apparatus an funnel that money to profit.

Job Training, Courtesy of the Owners

My father was an airline mechanic for Northwest Airlines for 30+ years. He initially learned his trade (courtesy of the GI Bill) from a privately-run vocational school at Wold-Chamberlain. He said the curriculum in the early 50s included sewing, so they could stitch up the fabric covering on an airplane. Handy if you needed to fix a Sopwith Camel, I suppose.

Over the years, of course, aviation evolved dramatically. For its part, Northwest understood the value of having a well-trained force of long-term workers. Dad was always going to classes, including several weeks in Seattle an Salinas, Kansas, learning the revolutionary new 747.

Would an employer still do that? Or would they kick the older workers to the curb and replace them with younger workers with current knowledge obtained elsewhere, and who could be paid less? Those younger workers would, of course, find themselves similarly kicked after a few years when their skills became obsolete.

This is sad....

Are the paranoid reactions to this article because it was written by an evil GOP’er? It would have been interesting to see reactions to the column if it was posted under a pseudonym. Parents have had enough of the last 30 years of false promises that a four year liberal arts degree would bring automatic economic security to their kids. In fact it’s been quite the opposite. Cue the responses blaming evil business for that too.....

"Paranoid Reactions"

The tendency of conservatives to make everything personal will never fail to amaze me.

The identity of the author of this piece is relevant to me, because it seems important to know if he would recommend a 2-year technical education for his own children. It is also relevant because, as he acknowledges, there is no plan to increase funding for technical education. Instead, Mr. Johnson intends to limit his role to standing on the sidelines, urging the lower classes to learn a useful trade ("Alpha children work much harder than you do, because they're so frightfully clever. Be glad you're a Beta, because you don't do such important work."). Forget upward mobility--be of service to an employer!

"Parents have had enough of the last 30 years of false promises that a four year liberal arts degree would bring automatic economic security to their kids. In fact it’s been quite the opposite." Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan was finishing his second term as President. The trend towards ever greater economic and social inequality was well underway, helped in no small part by his policies.

"Cue the responses blaming evil business for that too....." Whom would you rather we should blame, George Soros?

Realistic, I would Say

Are the commenters here being paranoid or just realistic in their assessment? It sounds like a lot of them have more miles in the rear view mirror than ahead of them, so they have a wealth of experience when it comes to life's little choices like education and long term employment.

All the elements you listed in your post--colleges, technical schools, and businesses--are great in their place. But lets not pretend that they don't also have warts popping up all over their faces. As others have pointed out, businesses won't hesitate to slash employees due to ageism, a down economy, or simply because they can save a couple of bucks by moving the operation to Mexico, just as Carrier is doing.

And all the while the executives will vote big bonuses for themselves as a thanks for a job well done.

It's not so much that businesses are evil, although there are certainly some people who are running a corporation and fit that moniker. A more accurate perspective would be to say that businesses are amoral; they're created to be self-serving and maximize shareholder return while minimizing expenses. That can be good (creating wealth) as well as bad (here's your pink slip). By pointing out the pitfalls of our systems, the people commenting in posts above are simply giving us a heads up so we can avoid the pitfalls.

That's not a political position--that's just pragmatic.

What has more security...

A two year degree in welding or a four year degree in philosophy or american studies? And i’m personally think two year vocation degrees would be great for middle class kids as well. It beats the crushing debt of 4 year degree from macalaster. I won’t be sad at all if my kids make that choice.