After decades of pushing bachelor’s degrees, U.S. needs more tradespeople
FONTANA, Calif. — At a steel factory dwarfed by the adjacent Auto Club Speedway, Fernando Esparza is working toward his next promotion.
Esparza is a 46-year-old mechanic for Evolution Fresh, a subsidiary of Starbucks that makes juices and smoothies. He’s taking a class in industrial computing taught by a community college at a local manufacturing plant in the hope it will bump up his wages.
It’s a pretty safe bet. The skills being taught here are in high demand. That’s in part because so much effort has been put into encouraging high school graduates to go to college for academic degrees rather than for training in industrial and other trades that many fields like his face worker shortages.
Now California is spending $6 million on a campaign to revive the reputation of vocational education, and $200 million to improve the delivery of it.
“It’s a cultural rebuild,” said Randy Emery, a welding instructor at the College of the Sequoias in California’s Central Valley.
Standing in a cavernous teaching lab full of industrial equipment on the college’s Tulare campus, Emery said the decades-long national push for high school graduates to get bachelor’s degrees left vocational programs with an image problem, and the nation’s factories with far fewer skilled workers than needed.
This has had the unintended consequence of helping flatten out or steadily erode the share of students taking vocational courses. In California’s community colleges, for instance, it’s dropped to 28 percent from 31 percent since 2000, contributing to a shortage of trained workers with more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree.
“All throughout high school, they made it sound like going to college was our only option.” Derrick Roberson, who is training to become an electrician
Federal figures show that only 8 percent of undergraduates are enrolled in certificate programs, which tend to be vocationally oriented.
Related: Universities and colleges struggle to stem big drops in enrollment
There are an estimated 30 million jobs that pay at least $55,000 per year and don’t require a bachelor’s degree.
Career education boosters also say job-focused courses — and accompanying apprenticeships — can provide students with essential “soft skills” such as communication and conflict resolution that foster teamwork and reduce stress. And schools should consider blending traditional college courses with vocational ones, said Sean Gallagher, who recently founded Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.
“It’s often either vocational training or liberal arts,” Gallagher said. “But if you look at what employers want, it’s both, and I think that’s often lost in the dialogue today.”
Learn while you earn
Americom Technology offers paid training and a mentorship program that helps people learn on the job while earning an income. “It’s a lot better than racking up thousands of dollars in debt for a degree you may not even use” says Pat Richter, CEO of Americom. Trades people are in big demand right now. Everything from trucking to construction. Americom is always seeking candidates that are committed to safety, hard work, and a desire to learn. Many of our long-term employees started out as laborers right out of high school, moved their way through the ranks of technicians, operators, project managers, foreman, superintendents, operations, management, and sales. There are endless opportunities and Americom is hiring!