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Is Vocational and Technical Education the Future of Higher Ed?

January 12, 2012

Is it time to reconsider our college plans for our kids? The outlook for recent graduates has been pretty dismal. According to the New York Times, of the class of 2009 humanities majors, only 45% are employed in a job that requires any degree, and even fewer are working in the field they studied in. Even back in 2006 that number was more in the neighborhood of 90%. So the answer is to have everybody go get medical or engineering degrees, right? Well, if one is so inclined, a degree in a technical field does offer better employment opportunities, but those programs have a high wash-out rate, and admission to those programs is VERY competitive. If you don’t love engineering, you’ll have a tough time trying to get an engineering degree.

Let’s take a minute and consider the history of the college degree. Back in the early ‘70s only about 11% of the population graduated from college. The rest went into apprenticeships, trade schools, or straight into the workforce. Today roughly one in three young people will graduate with a college degree, and many of those degrees will be from lower tier colleges and/or majored in less employable areas like the humanities and the arts.  The prestige of a BA isn’t what it once used to be, as the class of 2009 can attest. What’s worse, todays graduates are coming out of school with an average of $20,000 in student debt.

So what’s the alternative? Not everybody is inclined to go get their MD, or a bachelor’s degree in science and engineering. A degree in the humanities isn’t offering the same employability it once was. Might we consider technical school? Though it carries a stigma, trade school might be a great option for many of our young people today. Instead of spending their time, and tons of money, learning Chaucer, might they be better served if allowed to learn graphic design or plumbing? Interestingly that stigma against trade school that was mentioned is an entirely American invention. 40-70% of European students end up going to either apprenticeships or trade schools.

Technical education has the advantage of being quick, many folks can complete advanced certifications that will put them at the top of their field within 2 years.  Sometimes, this will even include an associate’s degree. Thus, no need to spend 2 more years and thousands of dollars studying the literature of east asia or the history of conflict. This also leaves open the option of pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the future.

Depending on your school some students can even start earning their tech credentials while still in high school. Though they’ve been much maligned and underfunded, in many parts of the country, many high schools still have a tech ed programs. They’ve even aligned them with a local community college in many cases. Often, if the student got good enough grades, a local community college will apply high school credits towards a technical degree. This makes a technical degree potentially even faster and cheaper.

But what about employability and salary you ask. First, consider this Harvard Study that says 27 percent of people with post-secondary licenses or certificates—credentials short of an associate’s degree—earn more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient. Next, consider a good benchmark, many engineering students are coming out of 4 years of school with $20,000 in debt, and will start out making $45-50K. That sounds hard to beat until you consider that the student that went to tech school an got his credentials in aircraft repair has been working as a mechanic and is making $45k, AND has spent the last two years already earning that salary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for aircraft mechanics is substantially better than that of journalists or museum curators.

Likewise, the BLS’s traditionally pessimistic earnings numbers are listed below. And, each of these professions has a strong outlook for the future jobs market, something an anthropologist can’t claim.

Electrician – $44k

Plumber – $43k

Firefighter – $44k

Chef – $44k

Tool & Die Maker – $44K

Graphic Designer – $42K

Dental Hygienist – $66K

Nurse (w/ AS Degree) – $43K

Aircraft Mechanic – $45K


So what do you think, has the time for the technical degree come? Or, will the liberal arts degree continue to be a license to a great career?


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  1. Reblogged this on Making Futures and commented:
    The author here talks about a subject we’ve recently featured. I might advocate, however for changing the word “Vocational” (which seems to only play into the stigma that already exists) to “Career.” Thank you for making this point and adding to the discussion!

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