Marketplace - American Public Media
Chris Black is a New York City-based brand consultant and the founder of Done to Death Projects. His Twitter feed offers "high level cultural commentary" on current events, pop culture, music, fashion, and more. Black spoke with Marketplace Weekend about navigating social media, the narcissism of selfies, and the cringe-inducing act of rereading your own Twitter feed.
"I think a lot of people in social situations are preoccupied with this stuff. Young people especially. When you've grown up with the internet and grown up with an iPhone, it's a very different mindset than someone like me or you," Black says.
His forthcoming book: 'I Know You Think You Know It All: Advice to Help You Stop Looking Like a Jerk in Public and Online' is available for pre-order on Amazon.com.
Listen to the full story in the audio player above.
Part of the reason for the recent tumble in oil prices is the surge in production in the U.S. – namely, natural gas.
The process to extract it – fracking – is not universally popular. A referendum on the upcoming ballot deep in the heart of Texas, in a town called Denton, would ban fracking.
Marketplace's Scott Tong has been reporting from Denton this week.
"Drilling proximity to people's homes is the issue," Tong said
But how Denton residents feel about that drilling hinges on whether or not they own the mineral rights for their land. Those who do are collecting tidy sums from oil companies, who pay for leases to drill there. Those who don't see long days of loud activity 80 yards away, with little compensation.
Proponents of fracking are worried that a ban in Denton, only affecting 100,000 or so people, would invite copycats throughout the state of Texas. Likewise, other countries with significant shale formations are watching to see the health research and policy reactions that come out of Texas's fracking boom.
Residents who oppose fracking are vocal, speaking frequently with reporters. They're worried about unintended consequences: loud noise, pollution, and trucks moving in and out, diminishing the quality of life. The supporters have pored big money into opposing the referendum through ads and advocacy, but rarely put faces to those views.
If you watch season three, episode seven of “The Walking Dead” you may see me eating a guy. I was paid $100 to dress up like a zombie and help take down and disembowel a hermit. But aside from chiggers and a blurry screen grab for my Facebook page, that $100 is all I’ll ever get from my performance. That’s because extras get no residuals.
When you become a bigger part of the show, however, that changes. The next step up from an extra is a day player. If you get a line of dialogue in a show or have a scripted physical interaction with a character (called “special business”), you qualify for residuals. Everyone from day players to stunt performers to the main cast of a show, otherwise known as“featured players,” gets residuals. How much they get is based on what they are paid in the first place.
If you listen to the story above (we'll post in a few hours), you’ll hear how John Michael Tyler who played Gunther the barista on “Friends” got paid for his very first line. This Gunther:
But here, I thought it would be interesting to calculate how much one of the main cast members gets paid:
The “Friends” cast was making $1 million an episode for the last couple of seasons. But Craig Beatty, the Vice President of Entertainment Partners, says there’s a ceiling. During “Friends” that was around $2,500 an episode. So let’s use that as our jumping off point to calculate an example:
Let’s take “The One Where Eddie Moves In," otherwise known as the ultimate "Smelly Cat" episode:
If, back in 1996, it repeated once during the summer and once the following year on NBC, then Lisa Kudrow would have theoretically gotten:$2,500 x 2 = $5,000
When a show is syndicated to basic cable and local television stations (called "free television" in the biz), a sliding scale kicks in. Kudrow would have received 40 percent for the first re-run (40 percent of $2,500 = $1,000), 30 percent for the second re-run ($750) and then 25 percent for the next three re-runs. After that, it goes down incrementally until the 13th time it airs. From then on, an actor gets 5 percent for each episode every time it airs, forever. So if “The One Where Eddie Moves In” re-aired five times in syndication, the math would work like this:40% of $2,500 = $1,000
+30% of $2,500 = $750
+25% of $2,500 = $625 x 3 = $1,875
Kudrow would also be compensated for foreign rights, but those work a little differently. Back in the '90s, she would’ve gotten one flat payment of 35 percent, no matter how many channels it showed on outside North America. So:35% of $2,500 = $875
And if we add all that up:$5,000 + $875 + $1,000 + $750 + $1,875 = $9,500
I won’t get into DVD and digital media sales because those get pretty complicated, but let’s just say we hit $10,000 total per episode, for easy math’s sake . With 236 episodes, that would mean Kudrow would’ve gotten at least:$2,360,000 in total residuals for “Friends.”
Now, we all know “Friends” has aired a bajillion times, so it’s safe to say that estimate is ludicrously, ridiculously and extremely low. Plus, the cast of “Friends” actually negotiated for a higher share than that maximum for residuals, so they’re sitting pretty, especially since "Friends" has made somewhere north of $3 billion in syndication.
Regardless, residuals are a steady stream of income in a line of work where nothing else is all that steady.
Dr. Craig Spencer was treating Ebola patients in Guinea two weeks ago. He now is in isolation at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan after showing symptoms of the disease himself. Health officials are telling New Yorkers not to worry, and that Ebola is a difficult virus to contract – requiring contact with body fluids from an infected person while they are showing symptoms, including fever and diarrhea.
All the same, those officials are continuing to retrace Spencer’s steps through the city to see who might have been exposed to the virus. They have Spencer’s own account as a starting point, but they’re being helped by the multiple electronic checkpoints of life in the city.
From our commute on the subway, to buying our morning coffee with a credit card, to that Uber ride and of course Facebook updates, we are all leaving a digital wake as we move through the physical world.
“There’s a whole field of digital epidemiology harnessing these new digital data streams like digital exhaust for purposes of public health,” says John Brownstein, associate professor at Harvard Medical School.
Spencer took an Uber to the Gutter bowling alley in Brooklyn, for example.
“You can get access to the driver, distance [and] location that driver went to, the other passengers of that vehicle,” Brownstein says.
Credit card histories are obvious logs of a person’s location. But there are less obvious sources of information as well.
“We’ve looked at people’s access to free wireless networks, and we could tell when two people were close to one another and how they move around the city based on their access to social networks and we can model the spread of disease,” Brownstein says. That information is usually aggregated to study movement of large groups and transmission of disease, but it could also be used to trace individuals.
Smartphones especially leave digital trails far beyond simple call logs or even GPS data.
“That phone is doing a bunch of things for us,” says Gavin Manes, CEO of digital forensics firm Avansic. Not only is it regularly checking with the phone company for texts or voicemail messages, it is interacting with third parties.
“If you work for a business, you are probably have an email account connected to something like Microsoft Exchange,” he says. “Every so often your phone is making sure it still has the connection and reporting to that server what its IP address is and its approximate location.” While a phone company may keep its logs of a user’s location for only a few hours or a few days, the logs on email servers – or Facebook servers or Twitter servers – persist much longer.
Even digital keychains used to lock or unlock a vehicle can send information that can be picked up, says Mane. When you point your keyfob at your car and click to unlock it, that message can be picked up by another car of the same make.
There is one big caveat to using all this data.
“It’s not easy and it’s not automatic,” Manes says.
Take the subway, for example. It’s possible to detect what subway card was swiped at a turnstyle right after a sick person’s. From there, an investigator may have to go to a subway card machine’s records to determine what credit card number was associated with that subway card. From there an investigator will have to connect a name to that credit card number, which will probably involve going through a credit card company.
“There is no computer in someone’s basement that’s automatically tracking that material together,” Manes says. This is because none of these data sources was designed to track people for the sake of tracking people.
“This tracking data, it’s not like these systems were developed for that purpose, it’s a byproduct of the system needing to function,” Manes says. “When we can triangulate someone’s cellphone, it’s not because we designed the cellphone system to be able to do that, it’s a byproduct of the need of the phone company to know where someone is so they can know which cellphone tower for them to talk to.”
The data is big, and so is the city. Sifting through both is a monumental task.
Proctor & Gamble announced Friday it was planning to spin off Duracell.
Smithsonian historian Eric Hintz shares the story of the battery company, which got its start back in World War II.
Made with easel.ly
For more, click the audio player above.
As Amy Scott reported, we send billions of emails every day.
The thing is, email is terrible. At least that's the conclusion among Marketplace's digital audience: between unnecessary "reply all," vague subject lines and passive-aggressive cc'ing, the inbox can be a place of pain.
It can also be crowded. We asked:
So far, we've seen a few inbox zero fanatics. We salute them:
We've also seen... way more than zero:@Marketplace 16,695 in main inbox folder, an additional 5,000,000+ in saved folders — Blaine Bershad (@BlaineBershad) October 23, 2014
@Marketplace 192,397 emails.— Mike Brown (@xenoxaos) October 23, 2014
The question now: Can you beat them? We want to find the fullest inbox in America. Tweet us @Marketplace. Bonus points for a screenshot.
If there’s one message today’s high school students hear over and over again, it’s this: Go to college.
But Liz King, who grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, has known since middle school that college was not for her.
“I’m not a book person,” she says. “You know you are or you’re not.”
So, when the time came, King asked to go to Minuteman, a vocational high school near by. She wanted to become a hairdresser.
“I wasn’t having any of that,” says King’s mom, Jeanette Chapman. Years earlier, her son had asked if he could go to Minuteman to study plumbing. She said no to him too.
“I just had the impression that going to vocational school, he would miss out on something, a profession where you could make more money,” Chapman says. “I think it was all to do with making more money.”
Chapman, like most parents, wanted her kids to go to college. Surveys show more than 90 percent of Americans believe a college education is important.More than 90 percent of Americans believe a college education is important, but only 32 percent of people over the age of 24 have a bachelor’s degree.
“You’ve got a paradigm that’s embraced by almost everybody, but the reality is that by the time they get to their late 20s, only 30 percent of young people have actually gotten a four-year degree,” says Bill Symonds, director of the Global Pathways Institute and author of a 2011 report for the Harvard Graduate School of Education called Pathways to Prosperity. The report argues the U.S. is failing to prepare millions of young people to lead successful lives because high schools focus too narrowly on an academic, college-prep approach to education.
Symonds says there are millions of good jobs that don’t require a Bachelor’s degree. Many of those jobs are in so-called “middle-skill” occupations, like construction manager and computer technician. These jobs tend to require professional licenses and certificates, but not college. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, the median certificate holder out-earns more than a quarter of people who have Bachelor’s degrees.Straight to college — or not
Thirty-four percent of 2013 high school graduates were not enrolled in college as of Oct. 2013Enrolled1.96 million Not enrolled1.01 million Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Minuteman Regional High school, a vocational school outside of Boston, offers the kind of education in which, Symonds says, the nation should invest more. Students spend half their time in academic classes and half in a career major. They can choose high tech fields like robotics and computer programming or traditional trades like plumbing and carpentry.
Steve Hurley, a graduate of the electrical wiring program, says he chose Minuteman because he “didn’t want to get out of high school and not know what I was going to do with my life.”
Hurley graduated in 2014 with a certificate that helped him get started as an electrician’s apprentice. If he becomes a certified electrician, he can expect to make about $40,000 a year to start. That’s higher than the median wage for all workers in the United States.
Michelle Roche, director of career and technical education at Minuteman, says lots of kids who might otherwise drop out of high school end up thriving in vocational school.
“The students who have not felt success when they’re in a traditional academic school, where they've got to sit, the teacher’s talking at them, they’ve got to regurgitate this information, they've got to memorize and study. They’ll come here and they’re standing on their feet, they’re working with their hands, they figure out a problem,” she says. “And success breeds success.”
Graduation rates at regional vocational high schools in Massachusetts are actually higher than at traditional high schools.
'If I went to college, I would waste a crap-load of money'
Liz King, the aspiring hairdresser, convinced her mother to let her go to Minuteman, by promising to take all the college prep classes, in case she changed her mind about going to college.
But King says she knew college wasn’t for her.
“I thought that if I went to college, I would waste a crapload of money,” she says. “I knew I wasn’t good at studying. I was a procrastinator. And if someone was like, ‘Hey Liz, let’s go party, hey Liz, let’s go NOT study,’ I would’ve been like. ‘OK!’ I’m not self-motivated like that.”
But she is motivated about her career in cosmetology.
King graduated from Minuteman in 2004. By then, she had completed enough training hours in school to take the exam for her cosmetology license. She took the test days after she finished her high school classes and had her license by the time she walked across the stage to get her Minuteman diploma.
“My thing was having my certification before I walked,” she says. “That was more important to me than my diploma.”
King is now 28. She’s married, has a baby, and is doing what she loves. She and a business partner recently opened their own hair salon. It’s called J&L Studio, in Arlington, Massachusetts.
King won’t say how well it’s doing, but she says her family is “good, we’re comfortable, we’re paying our bills.”
She also says that when it’s time for her daughter to look at high schools, she plans to take her to Minuteman.
“Who knows, she might be book smart and want to be a doctor and then I don’t know if Minuteman would be the right choice for her. Maybe she would need like a Harvard-type high school. But, says King, “I want her to know that it’s not one way or no way.”What you learn, what you earn
Average earnings of U.S. workforce by educationGraduate degree$76,000 Bachelor's degree$54,300 Associate's degree$42,088 Certificate$34,946 Some college, no degree$34,624 High school graduate$29,202 High school dropout$20,480 Source: Georgetown University
What do I love to do?
Ed Bouquillon, the superintendent of the school district where Minuteman is located, says when students graduate from Minuteman he wants them to be able to answer two questions: What do I do well? And what do I love to do?
“And we’ll connect the answers to occupations or college majors,” he says.
When he meets with parents, he asks them if they know the answers to those two questions.
“Some say ‘yeah,” he says. “And some say, ‘Boy, I wish someone had asked me that in high school.’”
Amazon shares dropped 95 cents at close Thursday and the company posted disappointing earnings with operating losses at $544 million. It has been a big quarter for Amazon, with new acquisitions, well-received original series, ugly publisher fights and a disastrous smartphone launch.
The Fire Phone loomed large over the earnings call, which by itself has cost Amazon $170 million. With that new perspective, Forbes just published a review of the cash-hemorrhaging, actually-not-bad device.
Here are some other numbers we're watching and other stories we're reading Friday:$5.5 million
Ello is jumping off of that new venture capital infusion and becoming a public benefit corporation, Wired reported. Critics have noted the social network's ad-free, data-benevolent ethos might not stand up to investor pressure or future revenue opportunities. But its new PBC status — a relatively new designation — and charter prohibits Ello or any future buyer from selling advertising or user data.64 percent
The portion of American adults who don't know that online price discrimination — steering different users toward different price points based on cookies and other data — is legal. A new study from Northwestern University shows this practice is widespread, used by major retailers and travel sites. Time has a guide for users trying to get the best price.95,000
That's how many temporary employees UPS will bring on this holiday season, up 10,000 from last year. Overall, holiday retail hiring is expected to surpass 800,000 employees this year, the highest it has been since 1999. Though those temp positions only turn into permanent jobs for a few.$200,000
A physician who traveled to West Africa to care for Ebola patients is now in isolation at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. More on precautions being taken in his care. Plus, some news out of Europe this morning: members of the European Union have agreed on new targets for emissions. Back here in the states, investors continue to pay attention to energy prices which are on the decline. More on that. And in Chicago this weekend, UPS will hold a recruiting event to hire temporary drivers. The company says it needs 95,000 seasonal workers to meet the demand from holiday shoppers and to avoid what happened last year.
A survey by National Student Clearinghouse tracks high school-to-college transition rates.Which factor is most strongly correlated with college enrollment?
In Chicago this weekend, job applicants will interview at a recruiting event to become temporary UPS drivers. It’s part of an effort by the shipping giant to hire as many as 95,000 seasonal workers across the country to help meet the demand from online Christmas shoppers.
UPS is working to avoid what happened last year, when a rush of last-minute online orders and bad weather led to a public relations nightmare: UPS was late in delivering some Christmas gifts.
To help with the surge of demand last year, UPS eventually hired some 85,000 workers during the holiday shopping season. But it had only hired 55,000 initially. This year, it is taking no chances by hiring more temp workers, and hiring them all earlier in the season.
"UPS will flex its air and ground network with more temporary processing capacity,” says UPS Spokesperson Susan Rosenberg. “And that is everything from added work shifts to sort packages, as well as mobile sorting and delivery centers that are pop-up in some fast-growth locations.”
Rosenberg says UPS began planning for this holiday season on December 26 last year, including “collaborating with the shippers for better volume forecasting.”
Last year, there was a burst of last-minute orders, which, combined with major snow storms, worked against UPS.
“A lot of the retailers were pushing the last date for delivery back as far as they could to compete with Amazon,” says Yory Wurmser, a retail analyst with eMarketer, an e-commerce consulting firm.
This year, retailers are adding another complexity by changing up how they ship in the first place.
"A lot of retailers are shifting their fulfillment models to shipping from stores. So there’s going to be a big increase in pick-up points,” says Wurmser.
That’s likely to put even more pressure on shippers like UPS this holiday season, as holiday shoppers increase their reliance on shipping. Online orders are forecast to increase 16.6 percent this holiday season, and are likely to see double-digit gains for several years to come, according to eMarketer.
The world’s biggest producer of gem-quality diamonds holds presidential elections Friday. The same party has ruled the country since its independence.
Diamonds have been good to Botswana, but not everyone has benefited equally.
Diamonds helped transform Botswana from a very poor country into an upper-middle income economy. Former U.S. Ambassador Michelle Gavin says Botswana avoided the dreaded ‘resource curse.’
That’s when countries with rich natural resources experience low economic development. Gavin says Botswana largely protected its revenue.
“It hasn’t gone into Swiss bank accounts; it’s not in some former president’s yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean,” she says. “In Botswana, you can see what happened to those revenues. You can see it in the roads you drive on, the schools and the clinics that you pass.”
“There’s tremendous inequality and there has been for years in Botswana,” says political science professor Amy Poteete of Concordia University. “It’s one of the more inequitable countries in the world.”
Poteete says the volatility of diamond prices has increased in recent years, which plays into the country’s lower growth rates.
Whoever wins this presidential election will face continued pressure to diversify the nation’s economy.
Recently, I was late for a meeting in downtown San Francisco. Worse yet, it was during the workday when it was impossible to find parking.
Now, this is a problem you’ve likely encountered if you live in a big city—That is, circling around looking for parking. Well, no surprise, the techies in Silicon Valley have an app for that. And so I pulled out my iPhone, clicked on a parking app called Luxe and told it where I was going.
When I got to my location, Kelda ran up to greet me. She was my Luxe valet.
“How long are you staying today?” she asked.
I told her about an hour. And then I asked Kelda how she knew what side of the street I was going to be on.
She took out her iPhone and said, “I have it right here on the app and so you can see where you’re coming from.”
Kelda took my car to a parking lot that had partnered with Luxe. For this service, I pay five-dollars-an-hour with a $15 dollar maximum. Not bad for valet parking in downtown San Francisco. And when I was ready to leave, I pulled out the app to get my car.
Curtis Lee, the CEO of Luxe Valet, says despite its name, the start-up isn’t just providing a luxury, it’s using technology to tackle real transportation problems.
“Thirty percent of traffic is people looking for parking,” he says. “And in parts of San Francisco, that amounts to 27 minutes on average” of people circling around.
With parking being a $30 billion industry in the United States alone, Lee points out there are a handful of start-ups in San Francisco that are trying to capture that market.
“I call it the 'instant gratification economy,'” says Liz Gannes, a reporter at Re-code. She says it started with services like iTunes, where with one click, Apple could zap a song to your computer. Now smartphones are bringing it into the real word.
“You push a button on your phone and get rides through Uber and Lyft,” she says.
She says this new iteration of the instant gratification economy has a few big challenges. First off, these parking-tech companies probably don’t make sense outside of densely populated cities
“And, you’re dealing with real world goods and services,” Gannes adds.
Unlike, say, a digital music file, you can’t just zap up a hundred parking spaces. Plus, you need real people in the real world to provide the service.
“One of the ways that different companies are doing that is that they’re working with people who are not full-time employees and are subcontractors,” Gannes says.
And that introduces real world labor issues. In other words, as the instant gratification economy tries to move offline, tech companies are losing their online advantage and facing many of the same problems brick-and-mortars do.
It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?
Data journalism may have just jumped the shark.
Boulder, Colorado is the winner, so to speak: 102 commodes per 100 people. That’s 305,200 total toilets, using more than 5.3 million gallons of water per day. Miami, Florida comes up last at 62 per 100, and the national average floats at 83.
Redfin says too few toilets in a home is often a deal breaker for many prospective buyers. After all, nobody likes standing outside the bathroom waiting for Dad to finish reading the newspaper.
Amazon isn't quite what you'd call a blue chip, yet. In its quarterly earnings release after markets closed, Thursday, the giant online retailer reported an uptick in sales. But losses were up, too, nearly half a billion dollars in the third quarter alone.
"You know that Wu Tang song, Cash Rules Everything Around Me?" asks Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson. "This has to be Jeff Bezos's mantra over the past several years... but he hasn't been making enough."
From Fire phones, tablets and TVs to losses in streaming video, Amazon seems to be overwhelmed with its multiple business under one roof.
"Selling retail, but also you should remember Amazon's cloud services," Johnson says, are some of the bright spots. Think: the company's $600 million cloud contract with the CIA.
Amazon has long been subject to criticism that it is too many things in one, and will eventually have to pare down. But that moment doesn't seem to be coming any time soon.
Bezos, Johnson said, seems to be looking toward a broad ecosystem, where Amazon is a part of nearly every aspect of our lives: from retail to gadgets, to entertainment, groceries and more.
More than 3,000 University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill students, about half of them athletes - took classes that didn't require attendance and only had one assignment, which was graded generously by a staff member. That's according to an eight-month investigation from Kenneth L. Wainstein and commissioned by the university. The report, released Wednesday, alleges 18 years of academic fraud encouraged by the athletic officials to keep students eligible to play.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has the full story, along with a breakdown of key findings and the main players.
Many, many companies including Amazon, Microsoft, GM, Comcast and United are reporting earnings today. In the meantime, here are the stories we're reading - and numbers we're watching - Thursday.50.7
The euro-zone's factory Purchasing Mangagers' Index, up from 50.3 least month and beating out Bloomberg's projected 49.9 contraction. Good news for the still struggling European economy.1994
That's when the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act was passed, requiring telephone companies to make phone lines tap-able for law enforcement. FBI Director James Comey is pushing to broaden CALEA to get around new smartphone encryption measures from Apple and Google, the Hill reported.20
That's how many days a month modern global CEOs are on the road, according to the associate dean of Yale's business school. Following the death of French energy CEO Christophe de Margerie on a Moscow runway, Bloomberg explored the grueling, "essentially homeless" lifestyle of traveling executives.
Townsend Kyser has been raising catfish in rural Western Alabama for many years.
"Farming drives the economy in our area, and catfish drives that farming," Kyser said.
Prices are beginning to level out (about $1.15 pound for whole, live catfish), after some volatile swings in that past few years.
Listen to Kyser's reflections on the catfish economy and the future of jobs in his area using the audio player above
Meantime, if you've never cooked catfish before, give this rib-sticking recipe a try.
Southern Fried Catfish
Pat fresh catfish fillets dry
Batter with cornmeal and secret spices
Drop them in 350 degree oil for 3 min
As part of our "Screen Wars" series, Daniel Kibblesmith and Sam Weiner offer their predictions for the screens we use every day. Kibblesmith and Weinter also wrote "How to Win at Everything: Even Things You Can't or Shouldn't Try to Win At."
We all know that by 2015, every American will own a touch screen refrigerator, two smart-watches, and virtual reality goggles that replace your family and friends with characters from your favorite TV shows. But in the future, we'll be even more surrounded by helpful, distracting screens.
By 2016 your car’s windshield will be a flexible LED display that blocks out your boring commute with a grid of 25 music videos playing simultaneously. And forget Google Glass - by 2017 everyone in the world will be wearing hip, computerized contact lenses.
Because they’ll be mandatory!
With these convenient, painful surgical implants, you’ll never miss another text message, status update, or non-skippable advertisement - because you’ll still see them even if you close your eyes.Soon, you’ll be able to scroll through hundreds of vacation photos just by swiping your finger across your cornea.
By 2019, we’ll all be enjoying interactive screen sodas that cool your insides with the latest Netflix original series.
By 2020, even the money in your wallet will be made of screens. You’ll be able to put your own face on the $20 bill, in between displaying even more non-skippable advertisements.
But the future of the screen doesn’t end there. It ends ten years from now, when every human on the planet will be safely ensconced in their own full-body screen-suit.It’ll place you in a virtual environment so indistinguishable from reality that there’s no way of proving you’re not inside of one right now!
In fact, who’s to say that everything you’ve ever seen on a screen hasn’t been a simulation inside of a larger screen that’s quietly replaced our own reality.
Regardless of whether we exist or not, the future of the screen is looking bright.
For years, vocational high schools have been seen as a lesser form of schooling – tracking some kids off to work while others were encouraged to go on to college and pursue higher income professions. But things are changing. Vocational high schools are focusing much more on preparing students for higher education.
At one of those schools - Minuteman Regional High School in Lexington, Massachusetts - students can learn traditional trades like carpentry, plumbing and welding. They can also learn high tech fields such as video game design, engineering, and biotechnology.
Minuteman students spend half their time in vocational classes – often referred to as “career and technical classes - and half their time in academic courses. About 60 percent of the school’s graduates go on to college. That’s not the way things were when principal Ernest Houle learned welding at a vocational high school back in the 1980s.
“The highest-level math I ever had in high school was an Algebra 1,” says Houle. “And that only happened my sophomore year because it fit in the schedule.”
Houle went to Leominster Trade School, in Massachusetts. The school was located in a wing off the regular high school; Houle says he and his classmates were referred to as “trade rats” and no one expected them to go to college. After high school graduation, Houle worked as a welder.
“It wasn’t until I went to become a teacher and I realized that not being offered the classes during high school made it more difficult for me when I got into the college arena,” he says.
The origins of vocational ed
Vocational education wasn’t designed to prepare students for college. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, the law that first authorized federal funding for vocational education in American schools, explicitly described vocational ed as preparation for careers not requiring a bachelor’s degree.
“The early vocational education was driven by a philosophy of fitting people to their probable destinies,” says Jim Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education. “Kids from poor families were tracked off into becoming the worker bees. Others were tracked off to go to universities and be the intelligentsia.”
Stone says vocational education was designed to teach kids the specific skills for one job. To be a welder or a cosmetologist, for example, “with the idea that, once you become a welder, you’ll always be a welder. Or once you become a cosmetologist, you’ll always be a cosmetologist,” says Stone. The goal was, get kids really skilled at one thing, “and life will be good,” he says.
The idea that people could be trained in one area and rely on an industry to employ them for life was a reasonable one for much of the 20th century. There were lots of jobs – good union jobs – for people with just a high school education. But by the 1970s, the good jobs that required just a high school education were beginning to disappear. Technology and globalization were increasing the skill levels required for most occupations, and making the labor market more volatile. Entire sectors of the economy were being wiped out, and new kinds of jobs were being created.
To be successful in this kind of economy, experts say workers have to be multi-skilled and able to retrain for new jobs throughout their careers. Everyone needs a good academic foundation in order to do that, experts say, and most kids in vocational programs were not getting that foundation.
Improving vocational ed
By the late 1990s, vocational education had a major image problem. Vocational programs had become a kind of dumping ground for kids who weren’t succeeding in the traditional academic environment. That included a lot of students with behavior problems, and a lot of students with learning disabilities. In many school districts, vocational education wasn’t much more than a “second-tier special ed program,” says Jim Stone.
At the same time, the standards and accountability movement was taking hold in public education. States had begun to write academic standards, or goals, for what students should learn. In 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act. That law required states, in exchange for federal education funding, to test their students every year and to insure that all students would eventually be proficient in math and reading.
All students meant the kids in vocational programs too. And once states starting testing their students, it became clear that many students in vocational programs were at the bottom in terms of math and reading skills. Under No Child Left Behind, those programs could eventually be shut down for poor performance. If they were going to survive, vocational schools had to up their game in terms of academics.
“The early 2000s was a time of significant change in voc ed,” says Dave Ferreira, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators.
“What we wanted to do was create a student who was able to go out” and get a job, he says, but also able to “get accepted into a four-year college or university.” The idea was to make sure all students were both “career and college ready.”
Massachusetts stands out as a state that devoted significant time and resources to overhauling its vocational education programs, according to experts.
The key was to convince vocational teachers to put aside “the old philosophy of saying, ‘It’s all about the trades. I don’t teach academics,’” says Ferreira, and to help them learn how they could integrate academic instruction into career training. For example, show teachers how to teach writing skills when students were writing up materials lists and job estimates.
And it wasn’t all about integrating academics into career classes, says Ferreira. It was also about adding academic classes to the vocational curriculum.
Massachusetts has largely succeeded in bringing the academic quality at its vocational high schools up to par with its traditional high schools. In 2013, students at regional vocational high schools in Massachusetts did as well on the state English tests (92 percent proficient) as students at traditional high schools (93 percent proficient). On the math tests, they did nearly as well: 78 percent of students at regional vocational high schools were proficient in math compared to 82 percent at traditional high schools.
Career and college readiness
Ernest Houle, the former welder who is now principal of Minuteman High School, started working at the school as a teacher’s aide in 1996. He says things were already different from when he was a student at Leominster Trade School a decade earlier.
“The students [at Minuteman] had advanced math classes, they had the opportunity to enroll in foreign language classes,” he says.
Houle worked his way up at the school, earning a Bachelor of Science in occupational and vocational education and a Master of Science in educational leadership along the way. To get his Bachelor’s degree, Houle had to take a calculus class, a tall order having had only Algebra 1 in high school.
“It was a lot of hard work and staying after class, working with the professor,” says Houle. But he did it.
“I am probably the poster child for the importance of career and college readiness,” he says with a chuckle. He says his goal is to make sure every student who graduates from Minuteman is prepared for higher education.
“Students get the same kind of college prep here that they’d get at any high school,” he says. “And they get career skills too.” That’s a bonus students don’t get at most traditional high schools, and it’s one of the reasons many students and parents choose Minuteman.
A better path to college
Sean and Brandon Datar went to private school until 8th grade. Their dad is an electrical engineer and their mom teaches at a Montessori school. They’re probably not the kinds of kids you’d imagine at a vocational high school.
But when Brandon was looking at options for high school, Minuteman stood out, says his dad, Nijan Datar.
“Being an engineer myself, I like the fact that schools like this cater to making an actual living,” he says.
The family had been touring public and private high schools in the Boston suburbs, many of them considered among the best high schools in the country. But Datar wasn’t impressed. He says the main goal seemed to be getting students into the best, and most expensive, colleges. But no one seemed to be talking about what kids were going to do with their college degrees once they got them.
His wife, Teresa Datar, says high school students need more direction.
“My feeling is that in many high schools, students don’t know why they’re in the classes that they’re in. They’re just kind of biding time,” she says. “And then they go off to college and they flounder.”
Her son Sean did not want that to happen to him. He says what he liked best when he toured Minuteman is that the students he met seemed to have a plan for their lives.
“When you think about it, you want to know what you want to do, and you want to be sure of it, by the time you go to college,” says Sean. “You don’t want to pick a major, get like $50,000 in debt,” and then realize you want to do something else.
Ed Bouquillon, the superintendent of the school district where Minuteman is located, says one goal of vocational education is to help kids figure out what they don’t want to do.
“Sometimes I’ll have kids who, at the end of their four years, they’ll say, ‘Dr. B, you know, I came here in nursing and I really don’t like it.’ And that’s a valuable thing to know,” says Bouquillon. Better to figure it out in a public high school, where you’re not paying tuition, than at a college that’s charging you thousands of dollars, he says.
But students and families who choose vocational education face stereotypes. Nijan Datar says friends and neighbors in their affluent Boston suburb were kind of startled when they heard his son Brandon was going to Minuteman.
“What we did was definitely not the norm here,” says Datar. “I have had raised-eyebrow looks. It’s almost like you can read that other person’s mind thinking, OK, the reason I did this is because my son is not very smart.”
But Datar says his family chose Minuteman because it seemed like a better path to college than a traditional high school. His sons are “going to a regular high school but also dipping [their] feet into the real world and starting to get an understanding of what it takes to get a job,” he says.
His son Brandon is now a freshman at the Colorado School of Mines, working on a bachelor’s degree in geological engineering. His son Sean is a sophomore at Minuteman, majoring in robotics.
Alice Ofria graduated from Minuteman in 2009. She majored in environmental science. Now she works as a lab technician for the drinking water department in Billerica, Massachusetts.
It started as an internship, the summer after she graduated from Minuteman. But she was so good at the job, the town hired her on as a permanent employee, says John Sullivan, her boss.
“She’s an expert in computers and a whiz in chemistry,” says Sullivan.
Sullivan says it’s hard for the town to find people with Ofria’s skills. There’s a “chasm” between what people learn in school and what’s needed in the “real world,” says Sullivan. Even college graduates don’t tend to have the needed mix of skills and knowledge.
But Ofria was ready to go from day one, he says.
“The program at Minuteman prepared her to actually learn” what she needed to on the job, and fast. “She’s done outstanding work here,” he says.
As a lab technician for the town, Ofria stated off making more than $26 an hour. She gets regular raises, and health and retirement benefits too. Her friends are amazed.
“Most of my friends are waitresses or work as a secretary somewhere, or at a tanning salon,” she says. Some of them are college graduates, struggling to get by. But Ofria recently bought a new truck and went on a vacation to Puerto Rico.
And having a good job – she now makes more than $30 an hour – was a huge help when it came to paying college tuition. In May, Ofria graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Boston with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science. And just last month, she picked up a second job – as a teacher’s aide in the Environmental Technology program at Minuteman. She’s thinking about pursuing a teaching career, and if she does, she says she wants to teach at a vocational high school.
“Vocational school is where it’s at, to put it bluntly,” she says. “Because no one experienced a field, a trade and also got the same [academic] education. None of my friends experienced that, except for the friends I went to Minuteman with.”