Why this legislator wants to bring back shop class

One California lawmaker thinks shop class can address workforce shortages — and keep people out of prison.
California Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D) wants to require high schools to teach shop class (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli,)

New legislation set to be introduced by a powerful member of the California Assembly would require schools to bring back shop class, the bygone staple of the Baby Boomer and Generation X high school experience.

Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D), the chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said he will file legislation that would give California schools five years to reestablish wood shop, metal shop and other skills-based programs.

In an interview, Gipson recalled classmates at his high school in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles who used the skills they learned in shop class to get a head start on their careers.

“A number of my classmates open up auto mechanic shops,” he said. “You teach the kids a skill set which they can hold on to, they can feel good about. Not every young person who graduates from our school system has a motivation or desire to go to a community college or four year [college], but it’s our obligation to give them a skill set that they can feel good about themselves, but also take care of themselves.”

“We have to give them the skills because, whether it’s a plumber or electrician, those are good jobs that can buy a home that can take care of themselves get the piece of the American dream,” Gipson said.

Shop class — more formally known as career and technical education — has been a part of the American education experience for a century. But the number of those classes has been on the decline since the 1980s, when states began increasing the number of math, science and language courses needed for graduation. 

Between 1990 and 2009, the number of career and technical credits earned by U.S. high school students dropped by 14%, according to a report from the Brookings Institution. As academic requirements increased, vocational courses were the victims.

But those programs cover a wide range of topics, and public school students are much more likely to take classes that cover business, communications and consumer services than they are to take classes that cover construction or mechanical repair. The number of credits students earned in construction, mechanical repair and engineering courses all declined between 1992 and 2013, according to a National Center for Education Studies report released in 2020.

About 98 percent of public school districts offer some kind of career and technical education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and 10 percent of districts have schools that specialize in career and technical curriculum. But few states mandate the wood shops or metal shops that were once ubiquitous among the nation’s high schools.

In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed a measure allowing schools to apply for grant funding to pay for career technical programs. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, then a Democratic member of the state legislature who spearheaded the measure, cast it as a way to address a shortage of workers across the state.

“Our trades have struggled with workforce issues,” Kraft-Tharp, now a Jefferson County commissioner, said in an email. “We need plumbers, electricians, carpenters. There are good solid career opportunities. Shop class opens these opportunities by providing hands-on experience.”

Gipson said he sees another benefit of vocational education: As a way to keep kids out of jail. 

“When we took [shop classes] out of California, the prison pipeline opened up,” Gipson said. “This is a way to making sure that we as a society, as a government, provide an opportunity for those individuals to not fall through the cracks, to help reduce those who are going into prison because they have no hope.”

“We want to change that narrative to give them that hope,” he said. “And that peace of mind.”