Monday, September 04, 2000

Who wants to learn to use tools?

        Some kids shouldn't go to college. There. I said it.

        Suggesting another route is practically heresy these days. But consider this: Instead of wasting money feigning interest in school, some young adults could be jumping straight into the Old Economy, where white-collar marshmallows are waving cash at anyone who can drive a nail.

        With the school year just starting, I called around to check on our future. Diagnosis: Lots of computer experts in the pipeline, but who will install the pipe? Kentucky has a new, cutting-edge bureaucrat — the “commissioner of the New Economy” — but who will build his house?

        At high school Career Days, students are passing up the booths on plumbing and carpentry in favor of anything digital. “Industrial arts” is so over. “Vocational” is a dirty word.

        It's a national trend. As teachers retire, schools are seizing the opportunity to update for the Information Age. Northern Kentucky Technical College, for instance, lost its carpentry teacher last year, so the carpentry program was discontinued. “Vocational” has been dropped from the college's name, and computer-oriented courses are all the rage.

        High-school students who choose to bypass college can still study the trades by attending special schools, such as those in Greater Cincinnati's Oaks system. But at regular high schools, introductory career courses are now heavy on technology.

        The class we used to call “shop” is out. At many schools, students are now exposed to the trades through computers that simulate the work. Sprinkled throughout are hands-on exercises, but it's not the same as building a useful object with lathes and saws.

        This year, Wyoming High School is offering the computer modules instead of Woods and Furniture-Making, because its shop teacher retired.

        At Mount Healthy High School, senior Stephanie Hutton took the same computer-based course last year. Among other things, she learned she doesn't have the patience for welding.

        “It was a computer kind of welding,” Stephanie says. "It wasn't with a flame."

        She also experimented with electrical wiring, plastics and computer-generated animation. This last was her favorite — and the reason she signed up for the course.

        When I was in junior high, shop was required. I made my crooked sign that said “Pig” and got out of there. Forget about the relish tray. I didn't have the soul of a woodworker.

        I'm paying for it now. Big time. As in, “Please come to my house and help me. I'll pay you anything. I'll make dinner. Free HBO!”

        Construction executives are well aware of the crisis.

        The Homebuilders Association of Greater Cincinnati is designing a flashier brochure for recruiting students. It will focus on entrepreneurship: Become a carpenter and you may run your own business someday.

        The loss of the carpentry program at Northern Kentucky Tech “scares me,” says Mike Enzweiler, education director with the Homebuilders Association of Northern Kentucky.

        “We've probably never needed more trained people than now, and this is when we're seeing programs dropped,” he says.

        His organization's own training classes begin this week. There's still time to sign up. Just call 331-9500. Please. We marshmallows need you.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. She can be reached at (859) 578-5584 or