Different, But Equal

Driving home from work the other day, I couldn’t help but be caught up in a radio caller’s indignant rant against the idea of an alternative high school diploma. If students go out into the world armed with a trades-oriented certificate, the caller argued, employers will consider it as a “lite” diploma, a poor cousin to a “real” high school education.

I found myself nodding in agreement. After all, the blue-collar stereotype is very much alive and well in this strange new information age. Working with one’s hands is commonly viewed as menial labour; being able to store and retrieve millions of bits of information (regardless of its lack of meaning or context) is considered a respectable way to spend your day. Why, I wondered, would the Ontario government even be considering such a harebrained scheme? Why send thousands of young men and women into the workforce with such an obvious disadvantage?

By the time I got home and kicked off my shoes, I was busy formulating a mental list of points that supported that caller’s point of view. The only trouble was, every argument I came up with fell flat.

In the October 2005 throne speech, Premier Dalton McGuinty’s ideas to improve high school graduation rates included “an alternative secondary school diploma, one that gives prominence to the ability to develop a skill or trade. This diploma will set a different standard — not a lower one” (Bartleman, 2005).

That last bit of the statement raises an interesting point, one that seems to validate the radio caller’s point of view. If it wasn’t true that jobs in the trades (e.g., plumbers, sheet metal workers, hairdressers) don’t get a lot of respect, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario’s assurance that the diploma won’t represent a lower standard wouldn’t even bear mention. That stereotype may not be something most people pay a lot of attention to, but if we’re not careful we’ll be in for a shock when we discover just how valuable those hands-on skills are.

Canada is facing a huge shortage of people who have the skills and desire to work in the trades. One news report has estimated that, in the next ten years, there will be as many as one million jobs with no one to fill them. Want your refrigerator fixed? You may have to wait a week. Need your roof repaired, or maybe a whole new house built? Get in line. I don’t know about you, but if I had to wait several days to have a broken toilet repaired, I’d have a whole new respect for anybody I could find with the know-how to do it. The point is, a lack of respect for students with a trades diploma has little to do with how hard-earned or valuable their skills are, and more to do with our own biases.

But the argument that employers will consider it a “diploma lite” doesn’t hold much water. Let’s suppose you run a successful tool and die business and you’re interviewing job applicants. Not only do you need someone with a certain amount of mechanical aptitude, you’re probably also going to want a candidate with strong math skills. So who do you hire: the new grad with a regular diploma and honours in English Literature, or their counterpart who’s spent the past four years focused on technical courses? Given the looming skills shortage, young men and women who opt for a trades diploma may soon find themselves with the pick of the job market.

The idea that a trades diploma will limit grads to low-paying jobs also bears a closer look. The following comparison is hardly a broad sample, but a quick look at wages on the Government of Canada website is interesting. In Alberta, the average Sheet Metal Worker earns $21.91 an hour. Behind their computer screen, the Computer Operator/Web Technician is making a provincial average of $22.65. Pretty darn close, but the Sheet Metal Worker’s bank account may actually be a little fatter; the office worker had to pay for a two or three-year college diploma in order to get that job, while the trades grad was earning a salary the whole time they were completing their four-year apprenticeship.

Besides our own selfish motives (after all, we all want plumbing that works), the trades-oriented diploma offers huge benefits to the people who should come first in this discussion, that being the students. Ontario’s 30 percent drop-out rate is improving, but think about this: what if you got an e-mail tomorrow telling you that, instead of the Bachelor of Nursing you just signed up for, you had to do a four-year Bachelor of Commerce? Assuming you had no interest in the monthly profit projection of widgets, how motivated would you be in striving to do your best?

Obviously, this isn’t a perfect analogy, because paying for a university degree allows us a lot more freedom to choose which program we want to pursue. But, it does conjure up an image of what a dreary grind it would be to spend four years of your life studying subjects you had no interest in and that wouldn’t even lead to a career you enjoyed.

Yes, we need to ensure a decent, standard level of literacy, math, and life skills for every student who earns a high school diploma. Those pieces of paper need to mean something; they must represent a certain measure of hard work and a broad knowledge base. But, the role of our high schools is not simply to ensure that every student can churn out a set number of essays.

With all due respect to the lady on the radio, an education should also provide the capacity to make choices, to evaluate options, and to make informed decisions about one’s future. If we want to keep students interested, involved, and focused on the path ahead of them, then Ontario’s plans for a trades-related high school diploma are a step in the right direction.

References

Bartleman, Honourable James K., Lieutenant Governor of Ontario (2005). Speech From the Throne: Strengthening Ontario’s Economic Advantage. Retrieved from http://www.premier.gov.on.ca/english/Library/ThroneSpeech101205_ts.asp

CTV.ca news staff (2005, January 30). “Shortage of Cdn. Skilled Trade Workers: Gov’t.” Retrieved from www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVnews/20050130/skilled_trade_050129/20050130/

Service Canada. Labour Market Information. Retrieved from www.labourmarketinformation.ca/standard.asp?pcode=lmiv_main&lcode=e

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