Designer or Mechanic? UX Design as Vocational Education

In Margaret Rhodes’s March Wired article “Forget Welding. The Hottest New Vocational Schools Do Digital Design” the author explores the recent rise in popularity of user experience design as a vocational course. Vocational education — an educational course designed to directly segue the student into a trade workforce or technical career — has traditionally been conceived of as a non-academic, blue collar path to employment. Vocational schools of the past have typically been two-year programs designed to educate a student in a craft or technical skill such as mechanics, welding, or accounting that in turn make them an immediate asset to a large, essential workforce. In the present day, Rhodes argues, one of the most essential and marketable skills is that of UX design, and hiring managers as well as vocational schools are taking notice.

The article focuses primarily on Chattanooga, Tennessee’s “Center Centre” — a small user experience design school which works with investors and hiring managers to treat UX design as a form of vocational education. According to the article, the Center Centre founders “modeled it after traditional vocational programs, in which students receive hyper-focused training in, say, welding or radio engineering, to meet the needs of hiring managers. And right now, hiring managers need UX designers.”

The status of UX design as an essential workforce is a relatively recent phenomenon. According to the article, within the last ten years UX design has gone from a concept that was only vaguely conceived of to totally integral in any industry which has a digital component. This increased demand for UX designers has ushered in an era where UX design can be considered a teachable, marketable trade rather than something people “stumble into through a side door” as it was previously. The Center Centre founders suggest that their approach to teaching UX design as a career-focused educational curriculum sets it apart from other several-week training crash courses and UX degrees recently added as majors to more academically focused learning institutions.

The history of the reputation of vocational vs academic schooling programs is interesting as well. The author suggests that a traceable pattern exists between America’s interest in vocational programs and large socioeconomic shifts. While some European countries maintain a steady level of respect for and interest in vocational training programs to provide a strong workforce, Americans tend to ebb and flow in their preference for two-year vocational vs. four year academic schooling as most valuable. While vocational training was extremely popular and essential during WWII, the post-WWII years brought in a new era of white collar jobs in which vocational school was viewed as something lesser. The current boom in technology’s importance to any and all fields brings with it an increased need for the new type of vocational education in coding, UX design, etc to satisfy the demand from hiring managers across industries.

I found this article really interesting because I hadn’t much considered what type of education coding or UX design fits under. In Pratt’s case, it’s a major at a design/art school, leading one to believe that perhaps it’s something more academic or creative in nature. However, the simple fact that it revolves around learning a directly applicable skill set to a work force immediately after graduation certainly permits it to fit underneath the vocational umbrella.

I’m also interested in how stigmas and perceptions of “vocational career paths” will change with the inevitable increase of tech-focused careers. I certainly have noticed that those who pursue academia tend to look down upon vocational training, and I’m interested in tracing how and if those ideas change as more creative/intellectual courses become the new face of vocational education.