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The Future of Work: How I Learned the Hard Way What Happened to Vocational Education

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
Tools you won't learn anything about in most public school systems. (Photo: bogdanhoda/Shutterstock)

Tools you won't learn anything about in most public school systems. (Photo: bogdanhoda/Shutterstock)

A little over 10 years ago, my colleague Diane Bailey and I applied for a National Science Foundation grant to study (among other things) how mathematical simulation technologies were changing the work of automotive engineers and the organization of engineering operations at General Motors. As part of the grant’s proposed social and educational impact, we offered to produce a high-quality movie aimed at high school students that emphasized the interesting careers one can have by studying STEM fields.

Stephen R. Barley is the Richard Weiland Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University.


We were especially interested in portraying women and minorities who worked in science and technology, hoping to attract these underrepresented groups to careers in math, science, and engineering. We thought automotive engineering was a good choice of subject matter because cars are a major part of just about every teenager’s life. The NSF loved our idea.

We contracted with a production company known for making quality films to assist us. The movie’s plot moved from high school math to college math to the application of math in the real world focusing on automobiles at every step. Our goal was to emphasize action and excitement, while avoiding the pontification one often finds in discussions of why kids should take math and science seriously.

We filmed the first part of the movie at the Auto Tech Shop at Gunn High School in Palo Alto.

The shop, run by Mike Camicia—a longtime mechanic and sometimes race car driver—is unique in ways that we thought perfect for our project. First, many girls and minority students take Camicia's courses, so it would be easy to show women and people of color doing applied math. Second, the courses mixed college-bound students with students unlikely ever to go to college. Camicia's philosophy was that both groups learn different skills from each other.

Finally, Camicia asked students to tackle challenging and novel projects. For example, at the time of our filming Camicia had given his students a Monogram model of a Surf Woody. Their challenge was to scale up the various parts of the model to the size of a real car and then fabricate or locate the necessary parts to build a real Woody. The project allowed us to film high school students wrestling with the mathematical calculations necessary to do so, and making parts from scratch.

We shot the second segment at a Stanford Mechanical Engineering Lab where Sheri Sheppard taught a course that involved building a solar powered car. Sheppard had worked as an automotive engineer at all of Detroit’s Big Three before entering academia, and she also has worked extensively on improving engineering education for careers in the real world. Here too we were able to film a diversity of students having fun solving problems using math and engineering skills.

We shot the last segment at General Motors’ test tracks in Michigan and featured an engineer racing a Corvette around the track and then explaining how he was seeking to identify and solve problems with the vehicle he was testing. When completed, we proudly entitled the film, Hot Math and Cool Cars. We were certain we had produced a tool that would be of great value to high school math teachers and career counselors.

Bailey and I were asked to show the film to high school math teachers from California attending a program that Stanford’s School of Education runs each summer. Here was our opportunity to debut the film for the very audience we wanted. We imagined that the film might entice more students to consider automobile engineering—a career that, at least in Silicon Valley, is not as sexy as working for a software start-up programming yet another app for a smartphone.

The day of the premiere arrived. Bailey and I secretly hoped to be showered in kudos at the end of the showing. Instead, we were met with stony silence and the discomfort that accompanies not wanting to tell someone something they don’t want to hear. A male teacher eventually spoke bluntly. “It’s a nice film but we could never use it,” he said.

Why? “Because none of the high schools we represent have an auto shop.” In fact, he went on to explain, most California high schools have no vocational education classes at all. They had been axed years earlier when the state forced high schools to swallow budget cuts. The only reason we were able to make the high school segment of our film was that Gunn High School was in Palo Alto, a wealthy city where private donors subsidize not only the auto shop but a large variety of other educational programs that most high schools cannot afford.

Having gone to high school in the 1960s and '70s, Bailey and I had assumed that high schools still had vocational education—auto shops, woodworking classes, courses in basic business skills, and metal shops. What we learned that day still shocks me: Vocational education is largely dead in American secondary education and faces serious problems even in our community colleges.

Given the heavy emphasis on STEM education and on evaluating secondary schools on how well their students do on standardized tests geared to entry into a four-year college, you have to wonder if we haven’t somehow lost sight of the forest by looking only at the trees we like. The truth is that large numbers of students still never finish high school, never go to college, or drop out before graduating college. These are the students we are truly failing.

The irony is that we might save a larger number of these children by providing what we have taken away: vocational education. Even more ironic is that vocational education can be implicitly STEM oriented, as is Mike Camicia’s class. Indeed, many of the fastest growing occupations are those that involve the skills of technicians and the allied health care professions. There is also a need for carpenters, plumbers, woodworkers, mechanics, and machinists. These jobs pay reasonably well and, moreover, they are precisely the kind that can’t be off-shored.

It’s time for educators and policymakers to worry more about educating students with a wide range of interests and abilities for a wider range of occupations. It is worth remembering that if every student became an engineer or a computer scientist, those jobs would pay much less well than they do today. Worse yet, there’d be no one left to fix your car, replace your leaking toilet, or take the medical image necessary to save your life.


For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.