Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Nick Price, lead welding intructor, shows Gov. Gary Herbert a welding booth at the Davis Applied Technology Center in Kaysville on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. Herbert declared 2018 as the Year of Technical Education.

Recently, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development announced the expansion of its Talent Ready Utah program. With new corporate and secondary school partners, the program is providing vocational training to students across Utah. However, continued work is needed to reach the office’s ambitious goal of filling 40,000 high-skill, high-paying jobs by 2020. Goals aside, to support a balanced economy, local schools and communities would do well to eliminate cultural stigmas that too often deter students from pursuing vocational training in lieu of traditional post-secondary education.

Talent Ready Utah will soon be expanding its Diesel Tech Pathways program, offering more students in the Utah Valley region an opportunity to immediately enter the workforce with a marketable skill set and upward mobility after high school. The program, in concert with its new corporate sponsors Geneva Rock, W.W. Clyde & Co. and Sunroc, plans to provide skills-based classes to high school students. Program partners will offer students the opportunity to complete an internship in the diesel technician industry; they will then have the option of gaining additional training at either Mountainland Technical College or Utah Valley University. This expansion is promising, but first students must want to participate for it to be a success.

In a recent visit to the editorial board, Gov. Gary Herbert touted the achievements of the Talent Ready Utah program, but lamented that too many students, and community members, feel a cultural stigma surrounding vocational training. This stigma is real within certain pockets of society, and it is largely associated with the related stigmatization of poverty. For the 347,000 kids who live at or near the poverty level in Utah, the skyrocketing cost of a bachelor’s degree renders post-secondary education a luxury good. Vocational training, unfortunately, can sometimes be relegated to “second-best” status in the American cultural lexicon — something pursued only if traditional university pathways are unavailable.

Other developed nations appear to be overcoming this social stigmatization; their successful models of government-sponsored vocational training may illuminate the path forward for Utah. Noticing a dearth of skilled trades people and an oversupply of university graduates, the European Union sought to equalize funding for vocational training and universities at the turn of the century. Investment in public-private partnerships in the European Union, much like those seen in Talent Ready Utah, has helped lift some of the stigmatization associated with vocational training to the point that now a majority of students under the age of 22 pursue a vocational apprenticeship in Germany.

Students in Finland often choose to enter vocational school instead of a secondary school that prepares students for college. These students recognize the comparative advantage of pursuing STEM education and professions in fields they already know they excel in. Most importantly, they see clear pathways from vocational school to senior corporate leadership positions through high-profile executives who got their start at vocational school and now are role models in their industries.

In the year since its launch, Talent Ready Utah has enabled more than 100 students in the Jordan and Canyons school districts to access the curriculum that provides jobs after graduation. While this is commendable, continued investment and partnerships are crucial to ensure the program reaches its goal of filling 40,000 jobs by 2020. Doing so demands a concerted effort to combat and eliminate the unfounded, and unhealthy, stigma surrounding vocational training.

Industry leaders, such as GMC’s CEO Mary Barra, who first studied at General Motors Institute, must become public models of the success of skills-based training. Changing the perception of vocational schooling in Utah will enable students to envision their own potential, instead of being deterred by an unfortunate anxiety that pursuing a work-ready program is somehow inferior to university training.