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More Lasers Than Lathes Mark Today's Vocational Education

Last month, Washington, D.C., opened a new kind of trade school of which it is immensely proud. This is not one of the old-fashioned vocational schools that taught literal nuts-and-bolts repair work or hands-on career training in fields like auto repair and cosmetology. This is a sophisticated, technically amazing place with a long, fancy name – the Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering High School. Local companies largely financed a $63 million renovation of an old schoolhouse to create the first high school in America devoted to those three career fields.

Phelps, and many more new training schools across the country, are highly specialized and demanding. Phelps focuses on professions like architecture simply because that's where the jobs are in Washington. You see a whole lot more new office buildings than steel mills or airplane plants in the nation's capital.

Since computers now generate almost every formula and blueprint, today's architects and engineering firms need computer-savvy thinkers, not just draftsmen. They also want young people with so-called "soft skills" who can work in teams, solve problems, and behave ethically – not just follow orders from a supervisor. Some Phelps graduates will go to college and learn to become managers, but they'll know every technical task they ask others to do.

Old-fashioned "vocational schools" have given way to what's now called "career and technical education" in high schools, two-year community colleges, and intensive training programs sponsored by management and labor unions.

Students seem to like this blend of hands-on and cerebral learning. The dropout rate is way down in high schools that offer it. And if students do well applying abstract concepts to things they design and make, college or well-paying jobs await.