For about as many years as I’ve been editor of Snips, I’ve heard two common concerns regarding the sheet metal and HVAC industries.

The first one is that there aren’t enough young people entering the industry to offset the looming shortage as older workers start to retire.

The other common complaint is too many high school counselors dismiss vocational education as a career path, sending students into college who don’t want to be there and oftentimes end up dropping out. Besides wasting the time of students, professors and lots of tuition money, this college-only thinking means many students have no idea about the opportunities in construction, which may be better suited to some students’ talents and interests, and typically doesn’t require a college degree.

Besides construction, there are plenty of other growing industries, such as trucking, that have similar complaints about counselors and problems finding workers.

Lobbyists and advocates for vocational education so far haven’t had much luck in getting this message across to most school or state officials, if the recent actions of Michigan’s government are any indication.

A problem or solution?

In 2007, the state implemented the Michigan Merit Curriculum, a rigorous new set of course standards designed to prepare students for the new economy. It’s the latest move in the state’s decades-long attempt to move beyond the automotive- and factory-job base that formerly ensured high wages to almost anyone with just a high school degree - and sometimes, not even that.

However, as the nation’s economy has shifted to jobs requiring advanced skills and education for higher pay and the Big Three automakers have seen their share of the country’s car sales dwindle, the state has struggled to remake its work force and keep residents employed. Michigan’s 6.9 percent unemployment rate is among the nation’s highest.

The new curriculum beefs up the amount of English, science and - especially - math that all students must complete to graduate. By 2011, all students will have to pass two years of Algebra to earn a diploma.

Although the new rules passed with wide bipartisan support, some lawmakers and educators are now concerned they may be too tough for many students and cause the state’s dropout rate to climb.

State Rep. Joel Sheltrown is among those who say the requirements need to be revisited. A Democrat from one of the state’s Northern Lower Peninsula districts, he says the one-size-fits-all nature of the state’s requirements doesn’t work.

In a June 11 editorial in the Detroit Free Press, he cited a district that’s reporting 25 percent of ninth graders have failed at least one of the newly mandated courses. Sheltrown also points to a university official who predicts the high school dropout rate will spike 300 percent as students who can’t pass advanced mathematics get frustrated and give up.

Flexibility needed

I can’t blame state officials for wanting to ensure Michigan pupils are some of the best educated in the country, but as a state resident, I’m glad I’m no longer in high school.

A lot of people who work with words for a living joke that they became editors and reporters because they couldn’t do math, and I can relate to the sentiment. I fear what my high school transcripts would have looked like if I had been required to tackle the kind of math I took in college while just a 16-year-old.

Although few teenagers have any idea what kind of career they’re going to have, counselors need to present many options and a curriculum that doesn’t have some flexibility doesn’t seem to be accomplishing the state’s goals.

Even the Michigan Education Association, the powerful union that represents public school educators, has similar concerns about the new requirements. Iris Salters, the MEA’s president, has said the state cannot just put everyone in a college-preparatory curriculum and hope to reach students who may be interested in other experiences.

She urges abandoning the traditional “track” method of education where a 14-year-old is sized up and directed toward college or a different education path for the next four years. Instead, Salters says, pupils should learn advanced training that meets different interests and learning styles.

Sheltrown is sponsoring bills in the state House that will allow vocational classes to count toward graduation under the new requirements. It’s unclear what kind of reception they’ll receive from other lawmakers.

If more state and school officials heed the advice of people like Salters and Sheltrown, I think the visibility of HVAC and sheet metal as careers could be greatly improved, and perhaps the looming worker shortage wouldn’t be so bad. We can hope.