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Car talk

September 27, 2012 12:10 am

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THE STAFFORD School Board is caught between a rock and a hard place: Including automotive technology training at the new Stafford High School will be expensive, but how else can the needs of students who want it be met?

Let's face it: College isn't for everyone. Yet the decline in construction and manufacturing has meant a decreasing number of job possibilities for kids for whom a four-year degree won't cut it. One bright area: auto mechanics. Americans aren't about to give up their cars and they'll always need repairing.

For students who are good at tinkering with crankshafts and catalytic converters (not to mention the computer modules that increasingly control our vehicles) the news is good. Auto mechanics make more than $17 an hour, and jobs are plentiful.

That should give adults the incentive to provide the training young people need to go into this career. On a local level, it has: Not only do three Stafford County high schools currently offer the program, Germanna Community College provides advanced training at its new Stafford facility near Centreport Parkway.

Unfortunately, the federal government has chosen to put its money on college education over vocational and technical training. The Obama administration has reduced funding for vo-tech programs 20 percent in the 2012 budget, although the overall education budget is up 11 percent. President Obama has said his goal is for the United States to produce the highest percentage of college students in the world. That's all well and good, but some people prefer working with their hands. Should they not receive the country's support?

In 2011, fewer than one-third of all 25- to 29-year-olds had a bachelor's degree or better. Those who did achieve at least a bachelor's degree are not home scot-free: The average student loan debt among young people in their 20s was nearly $21,000, and the job market hasn't exactly embraced them--the typical starting salary for those recent college graduates fortunate enough to find jobs is just $27,000.

Across the nation, 75 percent of students who start high school finish in four years. But 90 percent of students enrolled in vo-tech programs finish on time, according to the Department of Education. Students in strong high school vo-tech programs are poised to complete one- or two-year post-high-school certificate programs that will lead to higher-paying positions. In fact, 25 percent of people with these advanced certificates earn more than the average holder of a bachelor's degree, according to Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce. William C. Symonds, director of the Pathways to Prosperity Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told The New York Times that tech courses "can prepare you for jobs in which you're going to earn a very solid middle-class income."

The words "middle class" should ring a bell. Just a few decades ago, Americans with no interest in college got good jobs in the steel mill, the coal mine, the auto plant, the furniture manufacturing plant, the construction site, or the textile mill. And the middle class grew.

Those days are gone, but Stafford County can strike a blow against the forces suppressing the American Dream for young people today: Figure out a way to provide auto-tech training at the new Stafford High School.





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