A Skilled Services Career Might Be The Best Economic Option For Many Students
Students not bound for college used to be put into vocational-technical classes as a way to build their skills for a vocational career. They had the opportunity to learn carpentry, food prep, hospitality, or automotive repair, among other trades.
But that’s all changed.
Back in 1984, the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act aimed to not only improve the quality of vo-tech education, but also shed its negative image. Then, in 2006, lawmakers revised the act, choosing instead to call it the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. They also wrote in new requirements to better link academic and technical content in the programs and increase accountability at the state and local levels.
While career and technical education (CTE) still offers woodshop, culinary arts, and automotive technology, students can also take courses in computer programming, architectural drafting, mechatronics engineering, and even entrepreneurship. In fact, many CTE programs lend themselves well to STEM-related careers, and students can later continue their education with a four-year degree.
Those who don’t, however, aren’t “stuck” in midlevel jobs like many parents might think. They can go right into careers in fields such as IT, healthcare, construction, manufacturing, and marketing and even earn more money than many of their college-bound classmates, both in the short term and long term. After all, many CTE-related industries have an aging labor force, and students leave these programs with skills that are in high demand.
Unfortunately, CTE enrollment has all but stagnated over the past decade, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Between 2006 and 2014, the number of students enrolled has dipped by 11.4 percent. This is just one more sign that there’s still work to be done to change people’s opinions on these schools and the students who attend them.
The Growing Education Debt
The truth is that students who pursue certifications in healthcare, IT, construction, or manufacturing — either through high school CTE programming or technical college — often find themselves earning anywhere from $40,000 to $77,000 per year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And because many states now offer free technical college, these students enter the workforce with little to no debt.
The same can’t be said for their college-bound peers, who rack up an average of $37,172 in student loans, according to The Wall Street Journal. And if you were to look at a recent report from The Cheat Sheet, a content partner of USA Today, you’d see why recent college graduates are struggling to get ahead. The earnings for a bachelor’s degree start at an average of $50,839 for healthcare, $61,287 for computer science, and $62,998 for engineering.
Then, combine these salaries and student loan debt with the difficulties often associated with finding a first job, and it should come as no surprise that college graduates between the ages of 25 and 34 have a median wealth of negative $1,900 — at least according to the Federal Reserve.
As bleak as all this may sound, there is a solution. A recent study from the University of Missouri shows that we have the talent to meet workforce demands; it’s just that current interest-based surveys are misdirecting students. If you want to uncover talent, a much better alternative is aptitude-based testing. In fact, the study found that females have the same aptitudes as males for many of the same industries, yet their interest in these fields is much lower.
When you overlay this study with data from the National Center of Education Statistics, which tells us that the top degrees earned by college students today are business administration and psychology, it begins to highlight the talent misalignment impact on our economy. We need people working in IT, healthcare, construction, and manufacturing to continue to build a robust workforce.
The way you go about changing perceptions and directing students toward their best-fit careers will vary based on the individual, but here is a good place to start:
1. Use aptitude-based tools
Unlike interest-based surveys, aptitude-based testing uses game-like exercises to capture real measures of a student’s ability. States such as Georgia have even gone so far as to legislate that aptitude testing must be a part of career guidance beyond standardized school tests.
2. Stop judging a book by its cover
In academic environments, it can be easy to use GPAs, SATs, and ACTs as a proxy for talent. The only problem is that this can typecast students who don’t do well on standardized tests, and educators then assume that the best option for them is CTE — and vice versa for students who excel in the classroom.
In the 1970s, psychologist Julian Stanley established a “Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth” (SMPY), in which he exposed students to various assessments of cognitive abilities, interests, and other factors. One key finding was that spatial ability — one’s ability to see 3D — plays a major part in creativity and technical innovation. However, this ability is overlooked in current school-based assessments. All students have the talent for CTE, but many of them don’t know it yet.
3. Reinforce innate abilities
When exiting the Navy, I struggled with choosing whether to go to business school or medical school. As a first-generation Hispanic who was also the first in the family to graduate from a four-year college, I was fortunate to have both opportunities. Despite having graduated from the Naval Academy, where leadership and confidence are staples of the curriculum, my belief in my abilities to be a doctor wasn’t strong, so I opted for business school.
Twenty years later, I found myself taking an aptitude-based assessment. When I received the results, I was surprised. While it matched me to more than 500 careers, my top four matches were optometrist, anesthesiologist, oral surgeon, and OB/GYN. What I’m getting at here is that students will be more confident in what they can achieve when they know their talents. If we affirm their talents, it instills confidence. When we show them the opportunities for which they have the potential, it gives them purpose. And when students connect those dots, their educational pursuits become focused and relevant.
4. Offer options
My brother-in-law opted not to earn a four-year college degree. After finishing high school, he pursued a certification in plumbing. He is now very successful in his career and happy working in a profession that he loves.
While I spent four years learning to earn my college degree, he learned on the job while making money — that’s the law of supply and demand in action. Even the strongest of students can be successful in the skilled trades and make $45,000 to $65,000 or more a year in a “blue-collar” job. What’s more, they’re almost certain to find employment, as there are always job openings in manufacturing, production, installation, maintenance, and repair.
It might still take some time to shed the misconceptions that CTE isn’t a “real” education, that it’s only suited for kids without any other options, or that no good jobs come with a certification. But educators are often the first step to initiating that change. Determine where students excel, support their natural abilities, and make sure they understand the potential in all their options. They deserve at least this much.
Armando Garza serves as the chief evangelist at YouScience, the first online aptitude-based career guidance platform. By applying a consumer-first model, Armando helps young adults find their best-fit careers at the intersection of talent and passion.
Armando brings a diverse background of business and leadership experience — he’s served as a nuclear engineer on a Navy aircraft carrier, created and launched Gain Fabric Softener, led the ideation for Doritos Roulette and Late Night Doritos, and led a redesign of the Pizza Hut delivery business model.