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Commentary: Tech, vocational schools serve vital need

Aug. 20, 2014 - 03:55PM   |  
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By early 2015, tens of thousands of troops will have returned stateside after more than a decade of military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some will continue their careers in the armed forces, but many will rejoin their loved ones as civilians where they will likely be confronted with a harsh reality: an advanced set of technical military skills that sometimes doesn’t translate into the “real” world.

How will these veterans obtain long-term careers?

Many won’t, as evidenced by the nearly 200,000 veterans who are unemployed, according to government data. Through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, most vets are eligible to receive education benefits to help them ultimately transition to a career. But instead of supporting their educational choices, some government officials are aggressively working to limit veterans’ access to high-quality training programs — in particular, those offered by for-profit technical schools.

With soaring veteran unemployment rates and an influx of troops returning home, it’s imperative that we provide vets with the tools, resources and support to obtain meaningful employment. Most importantly, they must have freedom to pursue the educational path of their choice.

For years, some government officials have argued that private-sector technical and vocational institutions are not an economical choice for veterans utilizing their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, suggesting these types of schools do not help students achieve “gainful employment.”

While there have certainly been missteps by some institutions, many more private-sector technical schools provide excellent outcomes for students. Government officials must stop discrediting all private-sector programs, in particular technical schools, and start helping our veterans make smart decisions by allowing them to select educational programs that fit their needs, complement their existing skill sets, and provide them with the skills to land not just a job, but a long-term, meaningful career. Vets have earned their benefits and they must be allowed to hear about, explore and exercise their right to further their education at the institution of their choice, without political interference.

Our nation is facing a serious shortage of skilled workers, including automotive and diesel technicians. Technical institutions, when governed properly and operated with integrity, can be crucial to converting the large numbers of unemployed vets into skilled craftspeople. Technical schools offer practical, high-tech and industry-specific training that’s just not available in many traditional four-year schools.

Many “hands-on” veterans are likely to succeed in these programs, since these schools have focused, work-oriented curricula that lead to solid, well-paying careers. Veterans should not rely solely on an institution’s ownership (public or private) as an indicator for success; they must look at the school’s student outcomes and vet services to determine if it’s a quality institution.

At Universal Technical Institute, more than 86 percent of veteran graduates obtain employment in their field of study. UTI works with leading automotive, diesel and motorcycle manufacturers to develop programs that prepare students for their workforce — a model that has proved successful for nearly 50 years. UTI’s tuition rates are reasonable considering the investment in state-of-the-industry facilities, automobiles, trucks, generators and tools, and the return on the educational investment is significant. Graduates obtain well-paying careers with top brand names in the transportation industry.

Successful private-sector technical and vocational schools represent the kind of job-driven education and industry partnerships that veterans need. By failing to consider successful for-profit technical schools as a viable and necessary program, we limit their chances of obtaining training that will lead to well-paying, long-term careers.

Lt. Gen. William J. Lennox Jr. retired as the 56th superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, following a 35-year career with the Army. He serves on the Universal Technical Institute Inc. board of directors.

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