What if life skills weren’t electives?

I walked around my brick foundation today, poking my fingers through the gaps in the mortar. My heart weighed heavy in my chest, my stomach twisting and threatening to squeeze the tamales I had for lunch back up my throat.

It was clear the foundation hasn’t been repaired in years. My fingers found spots where they could reach almost all the way through to the basement. My nail could scrape away the aged mortar.

My mind looped over the same thought, over and over: Where will we find the money for this big of a project?

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I Googled episodes of “This Old House” to learn how to tuckpoint. The process looks relatively manageable, albeit time consuming: Scrape away the old mortar about 1 inch deep. Apply new mortar.

Except there are rules. Like: Don’t use mortar harder than your bricks, because the bricks need to be able to expand and contract with the temperature.

How do I know how hard my bricks are? I wondered. How do I know how hard the mortar is?

The fantasy of being a Google-taught do-it-yourselfer on this project faded quickly. A foundation is too important to risk ruining. So I called Dad, the ever-present expert and giver of advice, to plan my next steps in taking out a loan and finding the right contractor to do the work.


WHEN I WAS in high school, there were plenty of life skills and trades classes. Home economics, early child development, wood shop, agriculture, building trades, architectural drawing, computer-aided drafting, electronics, auto shop …

My husband’s high school 25 miles away had additional trades education, such as welding.

All of those were electives, though. Between English, math, and science requirements, I filled my elective slots with art, theater, creative writing, and foreign language.

I don’t regret any of those courses. Nor do I regret my college courses in sociology, philosophy, foreign language, communication, photography … but I do regret not working in a few other skills.

At 15 years old, it’s hard to visualize life 15 years down the road. When I was choosing classes for my sophomore year of high school, I wanted to sign up for the things I was interested in right now. Like art and writing. I had no interest in getting greasy in the auto shop or dusty in the wood shop or sweaty in the building trades class.

At 31 years old, I sure wish I’d replaced one art class here with basic auto shop there, and maybe swapped out a semester of theater with a semester of home economics. (Try as I might, I still can’t figure out to thread my sewing machine.)

There were two life skills classes that weren’t electives: computer skills and consumer economics. In computer skills, we learned typing, resume building, and writing cover letters. In consumer economics, we learned the basics of balancing a checkbook and basic money management.

Both classes trained in skills I’ve used daily post-high school.

But there are a lot of other skills — like changing my oil — that I didn’t learn. And I wish I had.


GROWING UP, Dad did all the maintenance around the house. He is an Eric of All Trades, Master of Most. Building a shed, rewiring the house, pouring concrete patios, foundation repair, tree trimming, sump pump installation, car oil changes and tire repair … you name it. He did it, no Google instructions required.

I never worried about learning to repair things myself. In the back of my mind, I simply accepted that there’s always someone around home to do it.

Except in my generation, that’s not typically the case. Now that I’m no longer living with my parents and head a household with my husband, who’s around to do those big and oh-so-necessary projects?

Our house is an ode to literature and music. Every room in the house — kitchen included — has books. There’s a magazine rack in the living room and a newspaper stand upstairs in the office with back issues of our most coveted periodicals. Our entertainment room — which is quickly becoming my husband’s “cave” — is home to his prized turntable, sound system, and vinyl collection.

We’re both journalists and writers. We can apply AP style with a vengeance, but balancing on a ladder or wielding a hammer for much more than hanging a frame on the wall is beyond our skill set.

Master Fleet, a maintenance provider for semitractors and trailers, cited a survey in which 61 percent of millennials said they “really didn’t know much about the skilled trades, or that they didn’t care much for the jobs the skilled trades represent.”

That number also aligns with a 2016 NBC News report that 60 percent of people (not just millennials in this case) aren’t confident they know how to change a tire. The report also included insight into the basic car knowledge of younger generations: Most Gen Xers and millennials aren’t skilled in driving manual transmissions, adding coolant, or changing oil, either. (Guilty as charged on all counts … although I’ve watched Dad rotate my tires often enough that I think I could fumble my way through changing a tire.)

That’s not to imply that all younger adults are useless. I know plenty of competent folks my age who learned trades in high school electives or from older-generation family members. They are, however, in the minority among my network.


IN MY RURAL Illinois farming area, there’s been a trend of trades classes downsizing or consolidating into cooperatives with other school districts.

The elimination of in-house offerings at the schools frequently is cited for one reason: declining enrollment. It’s more cost-effective for schools to consolidate and pool resources. In my county, one example is an Area Career Center, which is open to students from nine public  high schools and one private school.

A 2014 U.S. News report states:

A lack of qualified teachers, restricted school budgets, high operational costs and an increase in the number of academic core requirements students are required to complete for graduation have influenced career-tech education’s enrollment decline.

“There’s less room for electives and career and technical education is an elective,” [said James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education].

The report also notes demand is increasing for trade openings even as school training decreases.

That report is four years old, but still relevant today. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported as recently as last month that the Dallas-Forth Worth area is 20,000 workers short in the construction trades. Not only would high school-level career and technical education programs help the average Joe (or average Julie) do simple home maintenance, but it would also make high school graduates career-ready for entry level trades positions.

So if a school’s role is to lay the groundwork for students to be competent, contributing members of society … isn’t basic construction and maintenance education a life skill set that should be taught?

Except, according to Forbes, the aim high school curricula around the United States focuses on college prep, not life prep. So unless a student is going to a trade school, career and technical courses don’t have a place in college prep.

I don’t regret my undergraduate education — after all, it was on the student newspaper where I learned the skills needed for my career. And I don’t regret my college prep courses in high school, such as AP English. I also don’t think it would have hurt my high school career to have one more required class: Before you graduate enroll in one life skills class.

The choice of class can be left open-ended based on the school’s offerings. If the school has 10 course options, have a student pick one. Maybe even go hog wild and require two. That still gives students some autonomy to choose courses suited to their interests, but also gives them an extra applicable skill set.

At 16 years old, I probably would have opted for home economics and learned the basics in sewing, cooking, baking, and household management. But if that class got too full, maybe I would’ve been inspired to take auto shop and learned the basics of oil changes, checking tire pressure, changing a tire, and simple repairs. At the very least, I’d know the names of car parts and what they do.


SO HOW MUCH skills training is — or should be — the responsibility of the school versus the responsibility of the parent?

For schools — particularly those that are underfunded in cash-strapped Illinois — I feel the burden of administrators. How do they stretch fewer dollars to expand costly programs like building trades?

The fact is, most taxpayers cringe at the idea of property taxes going up to fund more school programs. The school funding system is broken, and that’s too big of an issue for me to tackle in this space.

The problem is, for the next generation, many of the parents won’t have those technical skill sets to pass on to their children. My husband is brilliant, but when it comes to good ol’-fashioned barn raisings (or, in our family’s case, gazebo building), he’s designated to hold up the roof or pick up fallen nails. He’s not the guy wielding the power tools. And while I mock-flex my muscles and feel proud after changing a dryer belt, I won’t be any use to our future children in terms of wiring the house or tuckpointing the foundation.

There’s always a case to be made that people should just go to the experts and pay for these services. After all, I work in a newsroom, and readers pay for my product to learn the news rather than going to city council and school board meetings to learn about it themselves. Why not just go to a licensed repairman to have your home and car fixed?

To that I’d say: There will always be a dozen skills a person won’t know how to do. In that case, pay someone else to do it. Besides, one high school course does not an expert make. A semester of auto shop won’t be enough to teach a person how to replace a transmission, but it can teach basic and emergency car maintenance. A building trades class won’t teach how to tuckpoint a foundation, but it can teach how to fix a leaky spot on the roof. A wood shop class won’t teach how to build a house from top to bottom, but it can teach how to build a nice dog house.

Just like high school math and physics doesn’t teach us to be rocket scientists, there will still be a need to call and pay professionals for the big stuff. But it would be nice to have the little skills to mend and patch.

And if students find they love a trade, they can go on to trade school or an apprenticeship. High school would be the first step toward a future career, which should be its purpose anyway.

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