It does not appear President Bush's vocational education proposal will help the HVAC worker shortage.

How did you decide on a career in the sheet metal industry? Was it because a family member was already in the trade, or did somebody tell you it offered steady work and good wages?

I doubt it was because a high school or community college counselor steered you towards it. For a long time, many counselors and educators in the nation's school systems have told students their only option upon graduation is to go to college. And yet, as the graduation rates of U.S. colleges and university's show, that's not the right choice for many students. For some, the work load is too much. For others, family duties or economics dictate that a student head straight into the work force.

It's these students career counselors have failed by not making them aware of the opportunities in construction and skilled trades such as sheet metal.

After decades of telling students that a college-prep curriculum, followed by a four-year degree, was the only way to make a decent living, there is a severe shortage of smart, skilled workers in almost all facets of the construction industry.

A worker shortage

Nowhere is that more true than in the HVAC and sheet metal fields. According to the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, the industry needs 20,000 new workers each year to meet demand, even with the U.S. in a recession.

It does not appear the Bush administration's proposal to overhaul vocational education funding will help the industry reach that goal. As we wrote about in this month's issue, the Department of Education has suggested eliminating the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act, a federal program that funds technical training. Officials want to replace Perkins money with a series of state-level grants that could also be used for nonvocational education programs. Officials hope state lawmakers use the money to shore up their public schools' basic-skills classes.

The nation's schools need to make sure students know the three R's before steering them into job-training classes, Education Department officials say. Carol D'Amico, former assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, testified before Congress earlier this year on the need for a rigorous academic background.

"Even those jobs that do not require post-secondary education demand a higher level of academic skills than many of us realize," D'Amico said.

Many in the HVAC industry would agree. And that's precisely why so many involved in training the next generation of workers fear this proposal. As anyone involved in duct fabrication knows, this is a highly skilled industry that requires workers use their heads as much as their hands. If funding for vocational training is cut, it could have the unintended effect of reducing the numbers of educated individuals in the work force, according to a number of instructors.

Training is expensive

Several of those involved in vocational education also told me sheet metal and HVAC are two of the most expensive classes for a high school or community college to offer, since they use a great deal of machinery and equipment that must regularly be updated.

Jo-Ann Terry, vice president and dean of career education at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich., noted that the more advanced a class is, the fewer students typically enroll, meaning high-level classes cost more to run than a 100-level, basic course. When you factor in the cost of machinery for an upper-level HVAC class, you can see why educators such as Terry must take a hard look at funding such programs when the money dries up.

Where would a school's vocational budget be better spent: in a low-level electronics-theory class with 20 students, or a sheet metal class with press brakes, expensive air-handling units and only 10 students?

If you are concerned about the Bush administration's proposal, write your lawmaker or some of the groups involved in the fight for technical education and ask how you can help. To contact the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Post-Secondary Education, write 1990 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006 or see www.ed.gov on the Internet. For HVAC Excellence, write P.O. Box 491, Mount Prospect, IL 60056-0491, or call (800) 394-5268. See www.hvacexcellence.org on the Internet.