Trading the College Path for Trade Education

Trade school student learning to read construction blueprints.

For at least the past 30 years, committing oneself to academic studies and continuing on to a four-year college has been the agreed-upon path to success. However, recent trends and studies suggest that this route has serious flaws, both for individuals and on a national scale. 

The value of a college degree is declining while tuition fees and student debt climb higher and higher. Meanwhile, there has been a significant drain on the workforce in the manufacturing sector. Baby boomers are retiring, leaving an open window for young people well-versed in the trades. In the supply chain space alone, 25-33% of the workforce is at or past retirement age.

The growing need for individuals educated in the trades — and the lower tuition fees involved — are making for an enticing alternate path for today’s high school students.

A Look at the Numbers

In 1977, more than 18% of the American labor force worked in manufacturing. Now, that number is at less than 8%, despite a surge in the population. So, how did we get here? 

“Back in 1983, there was the ‘[A] Nation At Risk’ report in which … we all were appalled at the quality of education in America,” says Dr. Anthony P. Carnevale, research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. High schools reacted by focusing on academics and college, and “basically obliterated the modernization of the old vocation education programs.” 

With this, trade schools started to develop a stigma. “Parents come from a generation where everyone was pushed to go to college and tech schools were for the bad kids,” says Dr. Dawn LeBlanc, principal/assistant director of North Montco Technical Career Center in Lansdale, Penn., who holds an Ed.D. in educational leadership. 

“We made a mistake,” says Carnevale, who holds a Ph.D. in public finance economics. In the years since this new focus took hold, tuition rates have increased and student debt has skyrocketed. Once kids do graduate, about one-third end up in jobs that don’t even require the degree to begin with.

The Growing Interest in Trade Education

Due to these factors, many students and schools are now reconsidering their educational focus. For instance, a recent NPR profile focused on Haley Hughes, an 18-year-old who took on an apprenticeship at the New England power company NStar. By partnering with a community college, the apprenticeship offers students a two-year associate degree. For Hughes, the cost comes to just $1,200 per semester, as opposed to the $40,000 per year that she was looking at for a four-year college degree. 

Plus, the community college in the area offers a variety of courses, ranging from computer science, English, and math to more focused areas like DC and AC theory, physics, engineering, and business etiquette. About 90% of the students get jobs at NStar after graduating, with a starting base pay of about $58,000 per year.

A recent Wall Street Journal article, meanwhile, highlighted a Pennsylvania honors student skipping college to go straight to trade school. The state of Pennsylvania, in particular, is making serious efforts to get its students into technical high schools that will earn the young people certificates to help land a job or earn college credits. Some coding academies and apprenticeships can also serve the dual role of education and financier, as students can earn salaries while attending school for free. 

In 2017, 49 states passed 241 policies in favor of career and technical education. This is a “counterrevolution” says Carnevale, but he stresses that it can still be difficult to break through so many years of messaging that college is the only respectable route.

The Push for More Career Options

Economists have been arguing for this refocus for some time. In 2015, Carnevale was interviewed by NPR and stressed that “the baby-boom workers are retiring and leaving lots of openings for millennials,” adding that about half of the 600,000 jobs for electricians would be opening up over the next decade. 

And what about the idea that students with a four-year college degree will be more financially successful than those with a two-year degree or less? Though this has been accepted by many as fact, it may be misleading. According to Carnevale, “averages lie.” People who take jobs at retailers with low pay, he says, get lumped in with people in the trades, diluting the average and creating a false impression.   

Training students for the manufacturing workforce should pay dividends on a national scale as well, namely by reducing income inequality. A report from November 2017, for instance, stated that the “amount of vocational training available relative to the size of a country’s manufacturing sector may reduce income inequality, and improve the fortunes of workers earning below the top 10 percent of household incomes.” 

Comparing the United States and Germany, the study found that manufacturing employment has fallen in both, but manufacturing’s value in Germany has been consistent over the past 20 years. The difference? Germany has 15% more people in the workforce with upper secondary education than the United States. The United States, on the other hand, has a 17% advantage in post-high school education.

“There are too many four-year colleges serving too many students, and too few institutions with greater focus on vocational education and training,” says Joshua Aizenman, who serves as the Dockson chair in economics and international relations at University of Southern California, which conducted the study. 

Looking Ahead

In paying closer attention to such studies, hearing the concerns of students facing mountains of debt for depreciating degrees, and noting the waning talent in the manufacturing industry, the United States would be wise to step back and reassess its educational priorities. 

The stigma associated with technical education and trade school needs to be eradicated. A focused and invigorated effort to promote the trades can allow for a range of unique benefits — both for individual students as well as the country as a whole. And there’s certainly nothing embarrassing or lackluster about that.



Image Credit: Lisa F. Young/

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