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Suddenly, vocational training back in vogue

Enrollment soars in 'career technical ed,' as demand grows for workers with specific skills.

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Six years ago, as his 11th-grade classmates struggled with the college-application ritual, Toby Hughes tried to envision his future.

A Georgia honors student with a 1350 SAT score, he knew he wanted to go into computer science, so he went to local computer companies and asked what they wanted in an employee. "They told me I would be more marketable if I had practical technical training as opposed to theoretical academic training," says Mr. Hughes.

He began taking specialized computer-networking classes while still in high school, landed a $52,000 job after graduating, and now, at 24, makes well past that.

Similar scenarios are repeating so often that the world of career technical training – once known somewhat disparagingly as "vocational training" – is experiencing a renaissance in America. Enrollment in technical education soared by 57 percent – from 9.6 million students in 1999 to 15.1 million in 2004, the US Department of Education reported to Congress.

There's every indication that interest is continuing to rise, as families struggle ever harder to afford the traditional college education and as demand grows for skilled US workers in fields such as aviation mechanics, computer technology, electronics, global positioning, and trades ranging from culinary arts to construction.

"American career technical education is being redefined because the needs of the evolving US and world economies are changing," says Darrell Luzzo, incoming president of the National Career Development Association. "Educators at all levels are recognizing that the world's employers increasingly need skill sets that the conventional four-year college degree doesn't give."

The once-standard offerings of technical education – wood shop, metal shop, machining – don't cut it in today's economy either.

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