Industry Market Trends

A Closer Look at Trends Among Manufacturing Education Options

Jan 07, 2013

For students pursuing studies and future livelihoods in manufacturing-related fields, there are many degrees and credentials to choose from. Whether it takes two years to earn an associate's degree or four-plus for a bachelor's and beyond, the pathway from education to career can be varied. Here we look at the basic profile of each of the primary education paths toward a career in manufacturing, as well as trends in each path.

This year, for the first time, a third of the nation's 25- to 29-year-olds have earned at least a bachelor's degree.

Credit: jscreationzs at


Four-Year Colleges and Universities?

Students who attend a four-year college or university typically earn a bachelor's degree once they have successfully completed a program of study, which usually includes general education courses in addition to those required for the major and usually takes about four years.

Some colleges also offer advanced degrees, such as master's or other graduate degrees, following a bachelor's degree. Universities offer bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees and sometimes have professional schools such as a medical school.

Two-Year Colleges (Community and Junior Colleges)

Students who attend a community college or junior college are awarded an associate's degree once they have successfully completed a two-year course of study. Some two-year colleges grant diplomas or certificates of completion to students who have met course requirements and are ready to practice in their career fields.

Due to costs often being lower and admission being more open at two-year colleges, many students begin their college careers at a community or junior college and later transfer to a four-year academic institution.

Career Schools (Technical, Vocational and Trade Schools)

Students who participate in accredited education programs at a career school - or a technical, vocational or trade school - are taught various skills to perform a particular occupation. Students take formal classes and receive hands-on experience related to their specific career interest, like welding, HVAC or electromechanical technology. The degree of specialization means the course of study is typically two years or less.

At these schools, which generally cost less than four-year educational institutions, students may earn a diploma or a certificate, prepare for a licensing exam, or they may study to begin work as an apprentice or journeyman in a skilled trade.


"Trade schools nationwide are bursting at the seams as demand for skilled factory workers pushes enrollment to record highs," CNN Money reported last year. "Trade school officials say manufacturing programs are experiencing an influx of students - young people starting out, mid-career workers who are retraining after a layoff, and incumbent factory workers."

Certificates, credentials earned through vocational courses of study beyond high school that do not lead to an associate's or bachelor's degree, are the fastest-growing form of post-secondary credentials in the U.S., according to a 2012 study from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. With more than half taking less than a year to complete, the study noted, vocational certificates now account for 22 percent of post-secondary credentials awarded, due in part to their affordability, less time required to complete and high ROI often yielded.

In 2009, associate degrees in science and engineering technology accounted for about 11 percent of all associate degrees that year. According to the National Science Board's (NSB) comprehensive Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 study, science and engineering associate's degrees from all varieties of academic institutions rose from 38,400 in 2000 to 54,300 in 2009. Associate degrees in engineering technology rose from 29,700 in 2006 to 33,200 in 2009.

At the same time, record numbers of young Americans are completing high school, going to college and earning a college degree, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of recent census data. This year, for the first time, a third of the nation's 25- to 29-year-olds have earned at least a bachelor's degree.

The NSB's latest indicators show improvements in the number of students attaining bachelor's degrees in STEM fields. Science and engineering bachelor's degrees have consistently accounted for roughly one-third of all bachelor's degrees for at least a decade, and the number of science and engineering bachelor's degrees has risen steadily over the past 15 years, reaching a new peak of about half a million in 2009. Nearly every science and engineering field, with the exception of computer sciences, experienced increases in the number of degrees awarded in 2009. (In computer sciences, the number of bachelor's and master's degrees awarded dropped dramatically from 2004 to 2007, but then remained stable through 2009.)

Meanwhile, master's degrees conferred in these fields also rose, from 120,200 in 2007 to 134,000 in 2009, with increases occurring in most major science fields. In 2009, academic institutions in the U.S. awarded 41,100 science and engineering doctorates as well. Among fields that award large numbers of doctorates, the biggest increases between 2000 and 2009 were in engineering (47 percent) and biological sciences (49 percent).

Ultimately, more than two-thirds of STEM workers today have at least a college degree, compared with less than one-third of non-STEM workers, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Only about one out of every 10 STEM workers has a high school diploma or less.