Vocational education is increasingly becoming one of the most sought after educational options in our province, our country and globally, as the world moves into this new high tech, high skills millennium. When we consider the growing diversity of the school-age population we must be mindful of the various pathways to prosperity that are now available. We need to move away from the notions of one size fits all educational structures and open our systems to more diversified and adaptable models.

There are actually two types of education that are needed for a vibrant and functional society: one teaches how to live and the other teaches how to earn a living. Both hold equal value in terms of general education for all, as well as for those who wish to learn various practical occupations. For a modern economy, we must work to make both options top-notch choices for this new generation. The world of work is ever-changing and evolving and our educational structures must keep pace.

Too often the focus of our current educational system has centered itself on academic attainment in terms of college entry and a university diploma. However, statistics are showing that over half of the students who attend Cegep and University find themselves either in the wrong programs or dropping out before completing their first year of study. This is a trend that is increasingly more common in other provinces and in the United States as well. The systems' narrow focus on attending college is clearly not working for everyone. We are leaving behind many young adults who have no clear direction or who choose jobs that are not a good fit for their interests or their abilities.

Even those students who graduate from college and university programs find that their degree has failed to equip them with the skills required to get a good job. Many employers report that students are entering the labour force progressively more unprepared with the skills that are most needed in the ever-changing job market. This skills gap is cause for concern in terms of the viability of our economy and requires a strong shift in our culture towards the valorization of vocational education as a pathway to career success and prosperity.

In order to accomplish this important shift in thinking we need to develop solid career education and counseling programs in our elementary and secondary schools. In Quebec, the Ministry of Education is actively promoting Career and Vocational Education as a means of retaining students under 20 years of age in school and reducing drop-out rates, which are particularly high among male students in outlying regions. This promising strategy is one that many European countries have already embraced with great success, and as a result, they are surpassing the US and Canada in both educational attainment and youth employment.

The Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board has taken the lead in this paradigm shift with the implementation of meaningful career education programs in our schools, including a new and innovative Career Exploration Centre with technical modules for student exploration, the use of web-based tools such as "Career Cruising" software to help students explore careers and connect them with post-secondary institutions and employers, and with a strong and concerted emphasis and support for technical programs health, computing, secretarial and carpentry programs in our Competency Development Centers (CDC's).

The Vocational training programs at the CDC Laurier in Pont Viau and our satellite centres are of the highest quality, and are taught by highly skilled professionals with experience and expertise in their respective fields. This is in no way an inferior education or a second chance option that only those with no other means of hope have the chance to follow. These high quality career programs are alternate pathways that lead to success by providing excellent preparation for the majority of jobs, including well-paid "middle-skill" jobs that require more than a high school leaving diploma.

Statistics tell us that today 30 percent of the jobs that currently exist in the workplace did not exist five years ago. What does this mean for education? Economies the world over are changing into knowledge and skills-based economies. This changing face of technology requires trained individuals who are specialized in particular skills. Employers are seeking specialists who are experts in their particular fields, and individuals who can re-train and adapt their expertise along with the pace of industry. Our programs must keep up with this changing world. We must offer state of the art training and strive to adapt to these changing needs and trends so our students receive the best preparation possible. Employers deserve the best and the most prepared clients that our programs can provide.

Many students registered in our vocational programs already have a high school diploma, some have university degrees and are looking to change career paths and re-train, and many have work experience, or professional degrees from other countries and need to up-grade their skills, or have tried CEGEP and have decided to return to learn a trade. As mentioned, over half of the students who find themselves in our CEGEPS change programs or leave after the first year seeking other options and opportunities. We offer programs for any individual wanting to continue their learning or re-train for the labour force.

Our students see the education we provide as the best contribution to their futures, their independence and autonomy, their self-esteem and the future for their families. In areas where vocational programs are not available, we see that unemployment and poverty rates are higher. As an educator and an administrator in both general and now vocational education I see first hand the valuable role our training programs play. Our centers are places of excitement, curiosity, lifelong learning, and opportunity. Our students have very high employment rates, often finding work immediately after certification or qualification. In addition, our studies reveal that after one year the vast majority are still employed in their field of expertise. These are two clear and compelling indicators of our success and our value. We must recognize and celebrate the initiatives and the perseverance of our learners.

We are very proud to have a team of dedicated professionals who see the value in training our students to have the highest skills possible to occupy positions in our economy. At the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board we are all proud of our students who devote themselves to re-training and skills development, and who take on new challenges and work towards fulfilling their dream of success. Our students find employment in all walks of life and in all areas of society where they represent themselves with dignity and professionalism.

Our centers are the start of a life-long journey for our students. We want the future professionals we train to be treating our elderly parents when they are in a convalescent home, to be working on building quality homes in my communities that will last for years to come, to be fixing our computers when we are at risk of losing all of our data, to be repairing our vehicles when they are broken down on the side of the road, to be checking our reservations and finding us hotel rooms when our bags are lost and everything is booked! But most of all, we want them to be as proud of themselves and their accomplishments as we all are of them and the professionals who trained them to accomplish their goals!

Heather Halman, B. Comm., B.A., M.A., C.E.L. Director of Adult Education and Vocational Training Services Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board