Access to Quality Vocational Training in the U.S.

Kimberly Hauge

Kimberly Hauge was previously a Program Officer at AICGS.

In the United States, Congress is looking for ways to develop vocational training and make it a more viable postsecondary school choice. While vocational training currently is decentralized, the federal government can take actions to create new opportunities and incentives. Although there is guaranteed free access up to twelfth grade (the end of American high school), access to community colleges, vocational training, and four-year colleges are optional and oftentimes cost-prohibitive. But, because the labor market is becoming increasingly competitive, this type of vocational training and further education is often necessary. This article looks at the status of vocational training in the United States and analyzes how access to school choice at an early age could be helpful in guiding individuals toward specific postsecondary educational tracks or preparing them to go directly into the labor force. It also points out some ways in which the federal and local governments can strengthen jobs training and make American youth more prepared for and competitive in the labor market.

When Does Choice Become Available?

Initial assignment of primary schools is determined at the local district level. Typically, assignments are based on geographical area, although some districts request input about parental choice. Some districts also place students in schools with consideration to academic diversity, class size, and income diversity. In the public school system, there are inter-district or intra-district public school choice plans, charter schools, and magnet schools. At this initial assignment, parents may formally request for their child to be assigned to a different school than their neighborhood school, but may not be granted the desired placement. Also, there may be a fee if the request is granted in another school district. In the United States, parents may choose to send their child to an independent private school or homeschool them. Independent private schools may apply geographic, academic, financial, religious, and gender criteria.

The same choices are available for secondary school, which in the United States consists of the last four years of required formal education, grades nine through twelve. While students may apply to attend a private school or public charter school that focuses on a specific subject, students are otherwise automatically enrolled the same way that a primary school is assigned – based on geographical area, sometimes with consideration to academic diversity, class size, and income diversity. Over 87 percent of American youth go through the public primary and secondary school system. Through twelfth grade in public schools, students are generally not assigned to different schools based on skill in a particular subject area. An exception is a public charter school that receives public funding but is independently administrated, which allows it more freedom to provide specialized tracks, and typically, due to high demand, students must apply or enter a lottery to enroll. However, within schools, students may be placed in different levels of classes such as Advanced Placement (AP), Honors, College Prep, International Baccalaureate (IB), etc. depending on their level in certain subjects.

Unlike high schools in many other countries, the American high school system was established with the aim to equalize and not separate students into separate work tracks. The average public high school still requires that all students spend time in a variety of subjects, in order to be able to apply the general knowledge toward any career path they choose after graduation. They do not generally have the skills to go directly into a specialized field.

Challenges to Vocational Training after Secondary School

While the American education system guarantees primary and secondary education access, access to postsecondary education needs further reform, especially as other countries make improvements and competition for jobs with specific skills rises. Education after grade twelve is not guaranteed, and because the typical American high school focuses on general studies and students are not encouraged to choose a certain field to specialize in before graduation, the average high school graduate meets challenges finding a job without pursuing further education.

The OECD report Skills beyond School Review of the United States, published in 2013, studies the need for the United States to establish better postsecondary career and technical education (CTE) career-focused associate degrees, postsecondary certificates, and industry certifications that fit in the category of vocational training. Because secondary education is guaranteed, one of the suggestions made in the review that seems the most viable is to strengthen CTE in high school to offer a smoother transition into postsecondary education or even a direct transition into the labor market. Another suggestion is to offer better career counselling at younger ages.

At the November 2013 AGI Symposium panel titled “The German Apprenticeship Model: Helping Workers Gain a Competitive Edge,” the IBM representative recommended that high school be extended beyond twelfth grade to a thirteenth grade that includes more vocational training. A focus on providing an option for more choice in secondary school, including developing specialized skills together with access to CTE in these schools, would be a significant but effective change toward providing youth with skills to compete in the labor market and lead to more possibilities for the student post-graduation.

Within any vocational training, be it within the high school or in a postsecondary institute or business, it is also important to have clearer benchmarks and quality standards for industry certifications to use as points of reference in training. Currently, training programs in the United States are not synced to allow the easy transfer of credits from one system to another, deterring students from pursuing very specific job skills training.

More money needs to be set aside for developing vocational training. The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act allocates $2 billion over four years for this, which will double funding for Pell grants over three years and triple the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

Some companies are working together with the government to provide training specific to their needs. Volkswagen Group of America has created a facility in Chattanooga Tennessee (Volkswagen Chattanooga) that has implemented vocational training by accepting students into its Academy Automation Mechatronics Program (AMP). If the United States would like to continue to be competitive in postsecondary education, it needs to encourage businesses to set up these types of training as a viable alternative to traditional two and four-year colleges.


For American youth to be more competitive in the labor market, there must be increased and earlier access to vocational training in specific skills. By the time students complete American public high schools, the education is so generalized that they often feel unqualified to go into anything other than more generalized education. Policies and incentives should continue to be created to start people thinking about what sector they would like to work in at an earlier age. Secondary schools in particular should offer specializations and give students and their families the opportunity to choose in which direction to head. One easier way to do this would be to increase the number of public charter schools that specialize in separate tracks. Teachers should be trained to recognize specific skills and help develop students’ abilities. Next, the addition of a thirteenth year with vocational training to high school would broaden the students’ choices upon graduation and ease them into the labor market or into further education. This would involve the need for strengthened career counseling beginning at the high school level.

Within vocational training, be it through a company or an educational institution, more standards should be set so that credits can be easily transferred and applicable in the labor market. The government will need to provide more funding directed toward vocational training, and grants and loans should be created to teach people the skills necessary to make graduates of the American school system more competitive.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.