By Melanie Wilt

Every workforce discussion these days seems to revolve around a couple key themes. Our hands-on workforce has dwindled, and there is steep competition for skilled tradesmen and women in all fields. At the same time, education’s focus over decades was more on college preparedness than career readiness, and — while that ship has begun a slow, intentional turn — there needs to be a return to practical, life-skills for every student regardless of whether higher education is in the cards.

I feel blessed to have been a student who participated in a college prep curriculum but who also benefited by electing to take vocational education courses. Twenty-five years after high school and 22 years after college graduation, some of those vocational lessons are the ones I use the most frequently today as a public relations professional and elected official.

Sure, I heard from my Family and Consumer Sciences teachers that these would be important “down the road,” but I certainly didn’t appreciate how much until I came to rely on them on nearly every day in business, community service and life. It also just so happened that I was raised by a Family and Consumer Sciences teacher and farm wife (though she didn’t teach at my school) and she drilled a few of these things in at home along the way, too. It tends to surprise folks that I was active in FHA (at the time, Future Homemakers of America — now known as FCCLA Family Consumer and Community Leaders of America) since I settled on a career in agricultural communication and am now a huge supporter of FFA.

Here are five vocational education lessons that remain with me today:

  1. Running Meetings – My 17-year-old self had no idea that being president of the FHA parliamentary procedure team meant anything useful. But, as a PR professional and elected official, I run meetings day in and day out. With my busy schedule, I must run and participate in effective meetings, build consensus, follow up on action items and disagree civilly without derailing progress. While in most business meetings, Roberts Rules of Order are not followed exactly, it sure is handy to know that discussion should occur after a recommendation (or motion) is made. Otherwise, you’re brainstorming and may be unintentionally taking up others’ valuable time.
  2. Demonstrating – Showing someone how to complete a task seems like a simple enough skill, but is essential once you become a supervisor or manager. In vocational education, we were taught by hands-on instructors how to make nutritious food dishes, balance a checkbook, raise a family and construct a wardrobe. We not only understood why it was important, we were able to complete the task. There is no better credibility as a manager than to show your employees that you also know how to complete the task – it just doesn’t happen to be your role anymore. I still roll up my sleeves from time to time to do some showing rather than telling.
  3. Financial Literacy – I remember rolling my teenage eyes when I was forced to complete a mock checkbook for vocational education class, but that may be the most important of all the classes I had! Granted, I forgot it for a few years when I was in college and the credit card companies were waiting on every corner to sign me up for more credit than I deserved! But today, those basics are essential in running my business, my campaign and my family. Not only does balancing a checkbook help keep me financially stable, it helps me balance my life!
  4. Me Time – It may seem strange that vocational education was where I learned to value myself, but it was! The domestic pursuits that were the focus of our training in FCS have contributed to my life in so many positive ways. Not only did we learn about nutrition in our cooking classes, we learned how to prepare and enjoy a meal with our families. We learned the weight of the responsibilities of parenting when we were assigned a “bugged” doll to diaper, feed and rock for a week. While those were lessons that were scary to a teenage girl, they are used by her 43-year-old future self on the daily. By being competent at these pursuits, I am able to find more time to focus on my relationship with my children and husband, as well as my career.
  5. Time Management – One vocational advisor shared this quip: “If you’re 10 minutes early, you’re early, if you’re 5 minutes early, you’re on time, and if you’re on time, you’re late.” I still say that to myself, and feel a deep pang of guilt any time I’m even on time. I want to respect the other person waiting on the other end of the meeting. The first and most important way to earn someone’s confidence is to be respectful of their time.

I’m an advocate of returning vocational education and life skills to the classroom for all students, not just those who are interested in joining the workforce straight after high school. These lessons will serve those in all segments of our society, just like they have served me for all these years and many more to come.