It’s being called “The Great Resignation.” Millions of Americans are re-evaluating their careers and quitting their jobs at a record pace. With its beginnings prompted by the pandemic, the mass exodus of workers continued through 2021, reaching a 20-year high this past November. The ripple effects of the resulting labor shortage are felt in just about every sector of our economy.
Undoubtedly, this issue is on the minds of new high school graduates as they face decisions about their futures. Some may be enrolled at four-year universities for degrees in liberal arts and sciences. Some are starting at two-year colleges to complete general education requirements while they figure out what they want to do. For others, higher education isn’t in the plans at all. They’re headed straight into the workforce.
Not enough of them are choosing to attend trade schools—also known as vocational institutes or technical colleges—that teach hands-on skills for specific careers. The number of skilled-trade jobs in the U.S. is far outpacing the supply of qualified workers to fill them, a trend that began long before the pandemic.
For example, Electrical Contractor magazine warned about an impending electrician shortage back in 2003, mainly because there aren’t enough new electricians to replace those who are retiring. Plus, demand for electricians is expected to increase by 9% through 2030, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Like electricians, most skilled trades have a maturing workforce, with a median age of 43, roughly 10% older than the general population. But fewer young people are being educated and trained to fill their shoes. While not true in every case, American high schools have largely shifted focus to preparing students for four-year colleges rather than trade schools.
Misconceptions about technical education are partly to blame. Community colleges, trade schools and apprenticeship programs are often labeled as alternatives to traditional four-year degrees for those who aren’t “cut out” for college. These attitudes tend to persist, even with a favorable job market for skilled-trade careers.
Opportunities in the trades are not alternatives to viable careers—they are viable careers. These jobs are in high demand. They are well-paying. They offer security. Workers can often take part in paid apprenticeships while learning on the job. And, perhaps most importantly, they typically generate a high level of satisfaction.
In September’s “Skilled Trades in America Report,” some 83% of workers said they were happy with their choice of career, citing good pay, meaningful work and high levels of entrepreneurship, among other factors. As farmers know, there’s an intrinsic satisfation that comes from working with your hands and seeing a job through from start to finish.
Contrast that with reasons why other employees have been quitting their jobs in droves—low pay, lack of opportunities for advancement and feeling disrespected, according to the Pew Research Center. While these disengaged, discontented workers are leaving their jobs, skilled tradespeople are finding fulfillment and value.
I recently witnessed such positivity among students in MFA’s custom applicator program at State Technical College of Missouri—which, by the way, is ranked as the No. 1 community college in the nation. While working on a video project, I had a chance to interview many of the students and see them in class. These young people are focused and following their passion with a solid career plan in place.
Their instructors are just as passionate. “We need people with four-year degrees, but we also need those front-line people out there to keep our country going,” said Tom Giessmann, adviser for MFA’s State Tech program. “If there’s no one capable of providing those technical skills, society will collapse.”
Another benefit of trade schools such as State Tech is that they tend to cost much less. College tuition rates have soared faster than the price of food, energy, real estate and health care. Student loans are the second-highest consumer debt category in the U.S., totaling $1.75 trillion in April 2022, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Students in the MFA custom applicator program receive a stipend to help toward the cost of tuition, giving them a good chance to earn an associate’s degree with little or no debt and have a job waiting at MFA.
I come from a family tradition of four-year university degrees. My husband and I have been stashing money away in college funds for our three middle-school-aged children since they were born. But the trade school discussion will certainly be on the table in our house. Fulfilling, meaningful and financially rewarding careers are what matter to us, and those jobs can take on many forms.
Skilled tradespeople are desperately needed to keep American running, but they are in short supply. To change that trend, we must change how vocational and technical education are viewed. The best choice for every student is not a four-year degree. The path to success and happiness can lead through trade school and into a world of opportunities.
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