Revaluing vocational education in American culture

By Kayleen McCabe

If you told me (or my parents) fifteen years ago that someday I’d speak to a big audience about education … well, there’s an argument here for putting money on high odds!

But that’s exactly what I was asked to do at NARI’s Spring Business Meeting in Fort Lauderdale last month: Talk to attendees – industry leaders – about vocational education, which I feel is underrepresented in American schools, and, even worse, undervalued in American culture.  A big message to squeeze into 20 minutes, I know!

Now, any dyed-in-the-wool academic probably wouldn’t call me an educator. I don’t have a Bachelor’s Degree. I’ve never taken a class on teaching a class. I have certifications under my belt (currently working toward becoming a Certified Remodeler) and plenty of worksite leadership, but in no way, shape, or form am I “qualified” to advocate changes in educational standards … at least not according to the rule makers who sign the invisible permission slips that tell us what we’re supposed to do!

I tell you this because this rebellion – audacity in standing up and speaking confidently about something I feel strongly about – is the same audacity needed if we’re going to bring the trades back into the public lexicon.

In case you weren’t at the Spring Business Meeting: I’m a 30-something female contractor. Speaking of defying odds, I landed my own home improvement television series back in 2008. Hosting a cable show was cool and fun and gave me plenty of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, but where it paid off in spades was on the work experience front.  I spent five years on intense job sites – with a camera pointed at me, to boot. If that doesn’t force self-awareness, I don’t know what does.

My skills were sharpened. But my observations were, too. Until that point, my interest in the trades didn’t feel so unusual.  Men and women in my family were handy, and no one raised an eyebrow at the calloused hands that also had long, painted fingernails!  But over time, I realized that the viewing public clearly saw me, a female contractor, as against the grain. By swinging a hammer sans Adam’s apple, I was way more rebellious than I ever realized!

In addition to realizing how sorely women are underrepresented in the trades, I also came face-to-face with how sorely the trades are underrepresented in society.  I’ve met so many people who attended four-year colleges because it’s the so-called respectable thing to do – only to change their minds later and become a contractor or electrician or plumber.  Sometimes this trial and error cost them a lifetime’s worth of student debt.  It’s an expensive cultural lie that’s not only hurting individuals, but hurting America’s labor force.

And so my goal today is to fan the fire that burns down the “college > trades” mentality that persists despite so much evidence otherwise.

NARI’s Spring Business Meeting let me geek out onstage about all of this.  In one of the highlights of my professional life so far, my audience enthusiastically agreed with my message. For once, I wasn’t talking to a group that looked at me like I had three heads when I suggested our smartest high schoolers take the vocational route. Rather, I saw the nods of company CEOs who are short on qualified labor, and who are tasked with approaching schools with curriculum requests just to get the labor they need.  And the sad irony is that these are respectably-paid jobs!  They shouldn’t be so hard to fill in an economy where grads with Bachelors Degrees are facing a one-two punch of joblessness and astronomical student loans. Could the push toward the trades be any more logical?

No.  It couldn’t be.  And each and every handshake and smile from my fellow NARI attendees assured me of that.

I look forward to the revolution about to take place – a revolution to reintroduce vocational education as a viable, respectful choice for our nation’s up-and-coming workforce. You can help me do my part in making this happen by following me as I tackle my next chapter: Overseeing a dozen high schoolers in the construction of a 7,000-square foot short-term stay facility for families dropping off loved ones at Spanish Peaks Veteran Community Living Center in Walsenberg, Colo. Stay on top of our progress, and other news, by subscribing to my YouTube channel – www.youtube.com/kayleenmccabe or by visiting my website – www.kayleenmccabe.com Series premiers in August.


KayleenMcCabeAbout the author: Licensed contractor Kayleen McCabe has been swinging hammers and toting tool belts since the ripe age of six, when she shadowed her dad’s overhaul of their Denver home. She’s never looked back, and in 2009 beat out dozens of male competitors on TV’s Stud Finder for the grand prize: her own DIY Network series. 

Over six seasons, Rescue Renovation showcased Kayleen’s skills and wit as she’s swept in and saved more than 70 home renovations, from an NFL running back’s kitchen to a coalmine-turned-man-cave. 

But nails aren’t the only thing you’ll find Kayleen hammering. She’s an ardent advocate of trade careers and education, long seen as runners-up to traditional four-year college degrees and white-collar jobs. Her goal is to shed light on the rising demand for trade professionals that’s outpacing vocational training – and to help restore America’s respect for the trades in the process. 

4 thoughts on “Revaluing vocational education in American culture

  1. You and Mike Rowe should team up. My son is a tile installer. He works really hard, but no matter where he has worked, it seems the people that hire are not willing to take care of any benefits. People need certain benefits, such as having their taxes withdrawn from their pay, some holidays off, some sick leave. Those things aren’t offered in the trades all the time. I have watched your show since you won the Stud Finder show. I am 67 years old and have helped build and maintain our homes. I just finished taking apart the freezer hoping to repair the ice maker. Yesterday I removed an unwanted window and filled it in (The coldest spot in the house.) My husband and I installed the windows in our new garage and the next step is to build the stairs. All of it is fun and rewardng. I love keeping up with you.

  2. Pingback: Vocational Education is Undervalued in American Culture | Building Solutions Blog

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