"Tennessee has made its technical colleges free."
4/25/18, "High-Paying Trade Jobs Sit Empty, While High School Grads Line Up For University," npr.org, All Things Considered, Ashley Gross, Jon Marcus
"Like most other American high school students, Garret Morgan had it
drummed into him constantly: Go to college. Get a bachelor's degree.
through my life it was, 'if you don't go to college you're going to end
up on the streets,' " Morgan said. "Everybody's so gung-ho about going
So he tried it for a while. Then he quit and
started training as an ironworker, which is what he is doing on a
weekday morning in a nondescript high-ceilinged building with a concrete
floor in an industrial park near the Seattle-Tacoma International
Morgan and several other men and women are dressed in
work boots, hard hats and Carhartt's, clipped to safety harnesses with
heavy wrenches hanging from their belts. They're being timed as they
wrestle 600-pound I-beams into place.
Seattle is a forest of construction cranes, and employers are clamoring for skilled ironworkers. Morgan, who is 20, is already working on a job site when he
isn't at the Pacific Northwest Ironworkers shop. He gets benefits,
including a pension, from employers at the job sites where he is
training. And he is earning $28.36 an hour, or more than $50,000 a year,
which is almost certain to steadily increase.
As for his friends from high school, "they're still in
college," he said with a wry grin. "Someday maybe they'll make as much
While a shortage of workers is pushing wages higher in the skilled trades, the financial return from a bachelor's degree is softening, even as the price — and
the average debt into which it plunges students — keeps going up.
high school graduates have been so effectively encouraged to get a
bachelor's that high-paid jobs requiring shorter and less expensive
training are going unfilled. This affects those students and also poses a
real threat to the economy.
"Parents want success for their
kids," said Mike Clifton, who teaches machining at the Lake Washington
Institute of Technology, about 20 miles from Seattle. "They get stuck on
[four-year bachelor's degrees], and they're not seeing the shortage
there is in tradespeople until they hire a plumber and have to write a
In a new report,
the Washington State Auditor found that good jobs in the skilled trades
are going begging because students are being almost universally steered
to bachelor's degrees.
Among other things, the Washington
auditor recommended that career guidance — including choices that
require less than four years in college — start as early as the seventh
"There is an emphasis on the four-year university track"
in high schools, said Chris Cortines, who co-authored the report. Yet,
nationwide, three out of 10 high school grads who go to four-year public
universities haven't earned degrees within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
At four-year private colleges, that number is more than 1 in 5.
more aware of other types of options may be exactly what they need,"
Cortines said. In spite of a perception "that college is the sole path
for everybody," he said, "when you look at the types of wages that
apprenticeships and other career areas pay and the fact that you do not
pay four years of tuition and you're paid while you learn, these other
paths really need some additional consideration."
And it's not just in Washington state.
Seventy-percent of construction companies nationwide are having trouble finding qualified workers, according to the Associated General Contractors of America; in Washington, the proportion is 80 percent.
are already more trade jobs like carpentry, electrical, plumbing,
sheet-metal work and pipe-fitting than Washingtonians to fill them, the state auditor reports. Many pay more than the state's average annual wage of $54,000.
along with health care and personal care, will account for one-third of
all new jobs through 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
There will also be a need for new plumbers and new electricians. And,
as politicians debate a massive overhaul of the nation's roads, bridges
and airports, the U.S. Department of Education reports
that there will be 68 percent more job openings in
infrastructure-related fields in the next five years than there are
people training to fill them.
"The economy is definitely
pushing this issue to the forefront," said Amy Morrison Goings,
president of the Lake Washington Institute of Technology, which educates
students in these fields. "There isn't a day that goes by that a
business doesn't contact the college and ask the faculty who's ready to
go to work."
In all, some 30 million jobs in the United States that pay an average of $55,000 per year don't require bachelor's degrees, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Yet
the march to bachelor's degrees continues. And while people who get
them are more likely to be employed and make more money than those who
don't, that premium appears to be softening; their median earnings were lower in 2015, when adjusted for inflation, than in 2010.
that perception of the bachelor's degree being the American dream, the
best bang for your buck," said Kate Blosveren Kreamer, deputy executive
director of Advance CTE, an association of state officials who work in
career and technical education. "The challenge is that in many cases
it's become the fallback. People are going to college without a plan,
without a career in mind, because the mindset in high school is just,
'Go to college.' "
It's not that finding a job in the trades, or even manufacturing,
means needing no education after high school. Most regulators and
employers require certificates, certifications or associate degrees. But
those cost less and take less time than earning a bachelor's degree.
Tuition and fees for in-state students to attend a community or
technical college in Washington State, for example, come to less than
half the cost of a four-year public university, the state auditor points out, and less than a tenth of the price of attending a private four-year college.
with career and technical educations are also more likely to be
employed than their counterparts with academic credentials, the U.S. Department of Education reports, and significantly more likely to be working in their fields of study.
people don't seem to be getting that message. The proportion of high
school students who earned three or more credits in occupational
education — typically an indication that they're interested in careers
in the skilled trades — has fallen from 1 in 4 in 1990 to 1 in 5 now, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Washington is not the only state devoting attention to this.
California is spending $200 million
to improve the delivery of career and technical education. Iowa
community colleges and businesses are collaborating to increase the
number of "work-related learning opportunities," including
apprenticeships, job shadowing and internships. Tennessee has made its
technical colleges free.
So severe are looming shortages of workers in the skilled trades in Michigan that Gov. Rick Snyder in February announced a $100 million proposal he likens to the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II.
the federal level, there is bipartisan support for making Pell grants
available for short-term job-training courses and not just university
tuition. The Trump administration supports the idea.
A quarter of states last year reduced their own funding for
postsecondary career and technical education, according to the National
Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education.
The branding issue
isn't the only issue, advocates for career and technical education say.
An even bigger challenge is convincing parents that it leads to good
"They remember 'voc-ed' from what they were in high school, which is
not necessarily what they aspire to for their own kids," Kreamer said.
parents "are definitely harder to convince because there is that stigma
of the six-pack-totin' ironworker," said Greg Christiansen, who runs
the ironworkers training program. Added Kairie Pierce, apprenticeship
and college director for the Washington State Labor Council of the
"It sort of has this connotation of being a dirty job. 'It's
hard work — I want something better for my son or daughter.'"
Of the $200 million that California is spending on vocational education, $6 million is going into a campaign
to improve the way people regard it. The Lake Washington Institute of
Technology changed its name from Lake Washington Technical College, said
Goings, its president, to avoid being stereotyped as a vocational
These perceptions fuel the worry that, if students are
urged as early as the seventh grade to consider the trades, then
low-income, first-generation and ethnic and racial minority high school
students will be channeled into blue-collar jobs while wealthier and
white classmates are pushed by their parents to get bachelor's degrees....
In a quest for prestige and rankings, and to bolster real-estate values, high schools also like to emphasize the number of their
graduates who go on to four-year colleges and universities.
Bruce followed that path, enrolling in college after high school for
one main reason: because she was recruited to play fast-pitch softball.
"I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life," she
She never earned her degree and now, she's an apprentice
ironworker, making $32.42 an hour, or more than $60,000 a year, while
continuing her training. At 5-foot-2, "I can run with the big boys," she
As for whether anyone looks down on her for not having a bachelor's degree, Bruce doesn't particularly care.
"The misconception," she said, "is that we don't make as much money." And then she laughed again."