Despite skills shortage, tech school can’t get funding

Even though unemployment in the construction trades sits at around 18 percent, there is still, according to many contractors, a shortage of skilled workers in all the craft segments.

Which is what makes this story of an architecture and design high school in New Orleans all the more important. The Priestly School of Architecture and Construction, smack dab in the slums of New Orleans, started in 2006 with just 35 students. This fall they expect enrollment to top 400  and yet it still has trouble getting funding for a permanent location. The architecture firm of Perkins+Will has offered to do all the design work for an overahaul of an existing structure, but the neighborhood organization can’t come up with the $10-million to do the work.

These kinds of schools, focused on what educators call “project based learning,” are just what the construction industry needs to create a new generation of well trained workers.  The reason our industry doesn’t have the skilled workers it needs today is that more than 80 percent of high school shop classes have been closed in the last 25 years.

We’ve been making this same mistake in American education for the better part of three decades now. Everybody likes to think that their kids should go to college, but not everybody is cut out for college and more than half the kids that start college drop out before they earn a degree. By then these kids are in their mid-twenties, often in debt and have few if any useful skills to show for it.

Schools in Europe identify who is and who isn’t college material by the eighth or ninth grade. Those who are get an high-intensity mental workout for the next four years and a grueling final year of preparation for competitive exams–that’s just to get into a university. Those who aren’t start working on their manual or technical educations.  In contrast to our poorly prepared American craft workers,  a 22 year-old mechanic, carpenter or machinist in Germany has four or five years of formal training and almost as many years of supervised labor in his chosen field. 

Schools like Priestly in New Orleans offer Amercians and the construction industry the path forward and ought to be incouraged–and well funded.