LaFave: We need real-world education for high school students

Guest column

There are growing number of career-oriented opportunities available in the Upper Peninsula right now. And it’s overdue for Michigan to allow on-the-job exploration and training involving those good-paying opportunities to become an acceptable part of high school education.

That’s why I’m pleased to have my legislation, which opened a door for our students to take up internships or work study programs before earning their diploma, signed into law last week. My plan sets guidelines where students can work for pay or as a volunteer for four to 10 hours a week. It also safeguards funding for school districts, allowing students participating in this type of off-campus program to continue to qualify as a full-time student.

An additional point is a local school district’s board of education will have to approve and supervise each internship or work study program. That aspect must be emphasized because my bill expands the opportunities, but it is ultimately our schools’ decision to work together with local businesses and determine if a work study is the right fit. My intention is to give students added experience in helping with automotive repairs, preparing replacement parts for household plumbing updates or writing code to help develop websites, if they have an interest in those career fields.

This will address a serious problem in our state’s high schools, because they should have two goals for students after graduation: prepare for college or for a career. Unfortunately, we have primarily focused for more than two decades on getting students — regardless of their interests or educational strengths — into college. That has been to the detriment of skilled trade jobs and other stable careers.

Internships and work study programs are already common with college students, providing a real-world opportunity in a professional environment. That experience can help provide a strong start to student’s career or help the student decide which field of study to pursue.

Why should that opportunity be just for college students?

During my tenure as state representative, I’ve consistently supported the increased emphasis on more skilled trade and professional skills instruction in our K-12 schools. Michigan faces a real deficit in these career fields right now, with the demand expected to grow over the next 10 to 15 years, despite involving well-paid professions.

My call has obviously been heard loud and clear, as proven by my bill being unanimously approved by the state Senate before being signed into law. This most recent step came after state House and Senate committees unanimously approved it, with my colleagues in the state House voting 104-4 for passage before the state Senate’s 36-0 approval.

This is about giving students in Delta, Dickinson and Menominee counties better access to the job possibilities we know we have here. While this bill was written with this region in mind, knowing what we have here in our backyard, this will help strengthen our state’s future as well.

We already know today’s education in the western U.P. goes well beyond what’s in the classroom. Hands-on experience is crucial to both our job providers and students. If there’s the possibility of learning this kind of practical experience to discover if it is a career they’re interested in before they finish high school, we should encourage the opportunity.

When talking about the rest of our high school children’s lives, we should encourage the real world and not wait under after graduation for those lessons to be learned.

State Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, serves District 108, which includes Delta, Dickinson and Menominee counties.