Stewardship through Vocational Education
Religion & Liberty Online

Stewardship through Vocational Education

The idea of going to college is one that resonates with Americans and is the desired route by a great many parents for their child, and could be considered the embodiment of the “American dream.” The liberal arts have been pushed by many institutions, and much less emphasis placed on vocational education, now referred to as career technical education (CTE). Despite its long history in both America and among religious communities, a negative connotation has developed toward this technical or vocational path to earning a livelihood. When serving God and humanity, no path is identical “[a]s each has received a gift, [to] use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (Peter 4:10). One’s choice to attend an apprentice program should be a reflection of their gifted strengths, not due to societal pressure; education is what ought to be the encouraged standard, not exclusively college.

Historically, CTE was once a respected path to employment with firms aggressively recruiting students post-high school graduation. Until the 1950s, it was common for companies to provide extensive training as an investment in future employees, who were expected to forge a career with the firm. Over time, university enrollment became an easier feat, not only cutting interest in apprentice programs, but establishing them as a second rate alternative.

An early example is the General Motors Institute, now known as Kettering University, which became the established “anchor of a community” as they provided living wage jobs and helped build the nation’s middle class, making the prospect of a college education became more affordable, prompting more students to select this option.

One of the preeminent challenges in CTE again becoming a mainstream education choice is the negative stigma associated with the program, despite its robust training for highly desired skill sets in the job market. How has this happened? As addressed by The Atlantic, some have unjustly derided the value of vocational programs – perhaps, based on the vice of pride:

Every person wants to be validated, to think that somehow they are better than someone else. Nobody wants to be the low man on the totem pole, so they scramble to find a way to elevate themselves over everyone, or at least someone.

Americans must set aside this one-upmanship stigma and realize that we are a nation of choice and that there are many viable education options post-high school, which may even prove a better investment than heading off toward the ivory tower. Of the 30 fastest growing jobs, 18 require vocational training. CTE is lucrative with over a fourth of occupational license workers earning more than the average recipient of a bachelor’s degree. The annual median wage for a dental hygienist exceeds $68,000, proving one can procure financial success with education, but not necessarily a four-year degree.

Proverbs says “Pride goeth before destruction, and an[sic] haughty spirit before a fall.” If our society continues to emphasize college as the default path for all high school graduates, then we too will fall, as the demand for many jobs will not be met. Not all students should go to college, nor should all attend CTE programs. As former Senator Rick Santorum stated, “not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands … and want to work out there making things.” Skill sets are neither inferior nor superior, just different — making both essential for a prosperous state led by stewardship.

Society cannot function without these individuals. As Booker T. Washington wrote:

One man may go into a community prepared to supply the people there with an analysis of Greek sentences. The community may not at that time be prepared for, or feel the need of, Greek analysis, but it may feel its need of bricks and houses and wagons.

There is certainly a lot that we can learn from the rich history of the Greeks, yet this not something that will serve the immediate needs of society. A man in need of a home requires a bricklayer more than he needs a lesson on the Greeks. Society needs essential workers to lay the groundwork to sustain luxury trades.

Basic supply and demand verifies that a nation cannot be sustained by only teachers, engineers, and lawyers. Unemployment for degree earners will continue to increase, while demand for CTE professions will skyrocket. But who will fill these positions if they are belittled by their peers? No man has to be the “low man on the totem pole” if the negative connotation of CTE is eradicated and the social playing field is leveled.

According to Milton Friedman, the function of vocational education is to “raise the economic productivity of the human being” so that recipients may “receiv[e] a higher return for his services than he would otherwise be able to command.” Any form of education has the capacity to propel growth. Our national economy and morale will thrive if education becomes the focus, not exclusively one type. This can be accomplished if business leaders take the leadership of investing in an education system, as they best understand the demands of the market for skills. Education that increases employability is critical, as this is what will lead to social and economic prosperity. Such can be furthered through a host of platforms, and embracing CTE will provide a valued option for those who may not be attracted to university offerings and would otherwise forego higher education altogether.

Christ did not attend an Ivy League university, but worked in a trade requiring vocational training – carpentry. He did not walk among the highly educated Romans, but among the fishermen, who therein became “fishers of men” spreading the Lord’s word. Men are men, and as Christians, it is our duty to promote the path to prosperity and human flourishing – be it through an apprenticeship or through a university education. Each individual ought to embrace their gifts and do their best to follow “Christ closely and carefully [to] lead to amplified stewardship across the board.” Our service to humanity through our personal vocation and faith-led stewardship can take a multitude of forms, all of which are valid.


Jacqueline Derks

Jacqueline Derks is a 2014 Charles G. Koch Fellow at the Acton Institute. She attends New York University, majoring in Politics and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.