While President Obama focuses on sending more young people to college, “apprenticeships and other pathways to rewarding careers are more cost-effective for millions of young people,” argue Robert Lerman, an American University economics professor, and Nicholas Wyman, founder of The Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation, on PBS NewsHour.
Photo by Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images.
Two out of every five young adults are unemployed, yet employers can’t find “machinists, computer numerical controllers, electricians, welders, healthcare technicians” and other workers with “middle skills,” Lerman and Wyman write. The idea that everyone should pursue a bachelor’s degree has created a skills gap.
They see encouraging signs:
In New York City, for example, ‘P-Tech’ school, a collaboration involving IBM, the City’s Education Department and CUNY, is providing a STEM oriented, grades 9-to-14 curriculum with work-based learning that leads to a high school diploma and an associates degree. P-Tech’s aim is to turn out graduates with the skills they need to step directly into solid, good paying technical jobs–or to go on the higher learning with great confidence of success.
South Carolina is strengthening career tech, developing first-rate technical colleges and boosting apprenticeships.
In Pickens County, which is part of Appalachia, the closure of cotton mills and textile plants has depressed incomes and expectations.
Yet the county’s K-12 school system is confidently preparing young people for decent careers. It begins in grammar school where children receive hands-on experience with STEM concepts and problem solving. It continues at the district’s state-of-the-art Career & Technical Center, where vocationally-oriented high school students have access to industry-experienced teachers and to the machine tools, computers, robotic systems, and other equipment they will encounter in the most modern workplaces. School leaders and teachers have also overturned the long-standing perception of parents and students that the Career & Tech Center is for low-achievers. Entry to the Center’s ‘Technician Scholar’ program is by application only; kids with low GPAs and bad attitudes need not apply. It’s now cool to be a “Scholar Technician.”
Local employers collaborate with superintendents, sending their managers and technicians to work with teachers and mentor promising students.
Apprenticeship Carolina, a state program, helps employers start apprenticeships programs and coordinates with local technical colleges. Since its 2007 start, apprenticeships have increased six-fold in the state.
Students with different goals need different skills, Lerman argues. “High schools fail so many kids partly because educators can’t get free of the notion that all students — regardless of their career aspirations — need the same basic preparation. As states pile on academic courses, they give less attention to the arts and downplay career and technical education to make way for a double portion of math.”
“Millions of young people will never attend four-year colleges,” writes Sarah Carr in the Wilson Quarterly. “America must do more to equip them to secure good jobs and live fulfilling lives.”
“College for all” is seen as the solution to poverty, writes Carr. President Barack Obama asked every American to pledge to attend at least one year of college.
In New Orleans, the city of Carr’s book, Hope Against Hope, reformers created college-prep charter schools.
At schools that have embraced the college-for-all aspiration, career and technical education is seen as being as outdated as chalkboards and cursive handwriting. Instead, the (mostly poor and mostly minority) students are endlessly drilled and prepped in the core humanities and sciences—lessons their (mostly middle- or upper-income and mostly white) teachers hope will enable the teenagers to rack up high scores on the ACT, SAT, and Advanced Placement exams and go on to attend the four-year college of their dreams (although it’s not always clear whose dreams we’re talking about).
Idealism should be tempered with pragmatism, Carr writes. Only one-third of low-income college students earn bachelor’s degrees by their mid-20s. Drop-outs may be thousands of dollars in debt.
A 2011 Harvard report, Pathways to Prosperity, described strong demand for “middle-skill” workers with vocational certificates or associate degrees. For example, electricians average $53,030, dental hygienists $70,700 and construction managers $90,960, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“College for all” isn’t a smart state or national education policy, but can make sense as the mission of a single school, responds Michael Goldstein, founder of MATCH, a high-performing charter school in Boston.
In Boston, many traditional high schools describe themselves as college prep, but they’re sort of half-hearted about it. Few alums actually graduate from college. College rah-rah is absent. But so is career rah-rah. There is no rah-rah. I’m not sure how Carr thinks about such schools.
College is the dream of low-income black and Hispanic parents, Goldstein writes. When a large, open-admissions high school in Boston surveyed parents — mostly black or Hispanic single mothers without a degree — more than 80 percent wanted their son or daughter to go on to college.
I’m not sure I agree that educators in urban college prep charters, see career and technical education as “outdated.”
. . . I think more typically — there’s a perception that the vo-tech offerings themselves are terrible, with really bad track record of actually connecting kids to the right jobs, the air-conditioning repair jobs that Carr writes about.
Boston’s vo-tech high school is considered by far the worst public school in the city.
MATCH has considered launching a vocational charter school, then measuring how graduates do in the job market, he writes.
To keep students from running up college debt, MATCH is helping graduates enroll in community college with an explicit transfer path after two years: “Kids say: ‘I’m going to Bunker Hill College to study X, then I’ll transfer as a junior to U-Mass’.”
Community colleges have low graduation rates, Goldstein acknowledges. He fears a “peer effect” that “normalizes dropping out.”
By 2020, there will be five million more jobs requiring university degrees than there will be four-year graduates to fill them, if current graduation trends continue, according to new research from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Thirty-five percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree and 30 percent will require some college or an associate’s degree, the Recovery report projects.
But reports of a widening skills gap have generated widening skepticism, reports Jon Marcus for the Hechinger Report.
Georgetown foresees “a major shortage of college-educated workers, especially as baby boomers retire,” says Anthony Carnevale, the center’s director.
If the report is accurate, 23.6 percent of the workforce will need bachelor’s degrees and 10.9 percent will need graduate degrees, says economist Robert Lerman, an Urban Institute fellow. That’s close to the current percentages.
Georgetown also projects 12.7 percent of workers will need associate’s degrees, more than the 10.8 percent who have them currently.
Apprenticeships could substitute for associate degrees in some cases, Lerman believes.
Nearly half of four-year graduates said their jobs don’t require a college degree in a McKinsey survey last month.
Critics say previous warnings of a job skills gap haven’t come true. “It keeps going through these cycles,” says Hal Salzman, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers. “And every time it’s raised, there are serious studies that are done, and they say, ‘We can’t find the shortage.’”
The “middle-skills” jobs gap is real, but sending more young people to college isn’t the only answer, says Salzman. “College is not for everybody, and it’s really not an efficient way to do a lot of workplace preparation, if that’s our goal.”
The U.S. economy resembles an hourglass with a pinched middle, writes Marc Tucker. Singapore has a diamond economy, thanks to its educated workforce.
(Singapore) built a very high floor under the entire workforce by providing a world-class academic curriculum to all their students and creating a world-class teaching force to teach that curriculum. They built a system of polytechnics as good as any in the world to provide very highly skilled senior technical workers for a wide range of industries. Perhaps most impressive, they created a set of post-secondary vocational schools for the bottom quarter of their students as fine as any I have seen anywhere in the world, with facilities that rival those of many American universities. They turned vocational education and training from a dumping ground into a sought-after alternative that attracts more and more students every year.
Ninety percent of Singapore’s vocational graduates have job offers in their chosen fields within six months of graduation, Tucker writes. Youth unemployment is very low.
Angel Gavidia worked low-skills jobs. He tried community college, but dropped out after a year. Then he discovered a learn-and-earn partnership linking an IT-services company called Atrion with classes at Community College of Rhode Island, reports Jon Marcus of Hechinger Report.
The year-long program, in which Gavidia was paid to work as an apprentice at Atrion while taking on-campus courses in networking and other IT subjects, gave him the kind of real-world skills employers say they want but often can’t find in college graduates.
Gavidia, who now works full-time at Atrion as an associate engineer, says it was the apprenticeship part of the program that taught him not just theoretical knowledge, but skills he could actually use on the job. “I came into this position feeling like, we didn’t learn this in school, and we should have,” he said.
Community colleges have a long history of job training partnerships with employers, but universities are slow to adapt to employers’ needs, writes Marcus.
Eduardo Padrón runs Miami Dade College, the second-largest U.S. higher-education institution with more than 174,000 students.
“What I hear from business leaders who come to us is that the universities place before them all kinds of excuses,” said Padrón, whose institution has hundreds of partnerships with business. The universities “want to take three years to put a program together, and then they have all these excuses for not doing it the right way. It’s part of a tradition that’s not changing with time,” he said.
Corporations such as Farmers Insurance Group, Dunkin’ Donuts and Walt Disney World, do their own college-level training and education. Many others partner with community colleges on workforce development.
A growing number of jobs reuire “middle skills” — a certificate or associate degree, but not a bachelor’s degree. ”Nearly half of all jobs in the U.S. now require an associate degree — a greater proportion than call for a bachelor’s degree,” reports Marcus.
However, few CEOs or policymakers attended community colleges, points out Karen Elzey, director of Skills for America’s Future. “They’re four-year grads. All the people they know are four-year grads. They don’t have experience with community colleges.”
California’s community colleges will train tomorrow’s workforce — but only if they get state help. So argue Angela Glover Blackwell, CEO of PolicyLink, Jose Millan, vice chancellor of economic and work force development for California Community Colleges, and Van Ton-Quinlivan, director of workforce development for Pacific Gas and Electric Co, in the Sacramento Bee. Many infrastructure-building jobs are “middle-skill” positions that pay well but require less than a bachelor’s degree but more than a high school diploma, they write.
Many “boutique” community college training programs are already helping build this work force. Take PG&E’s 2-year-old PowerPathway effort, which works with community colleges to develop industry-advised curriculum for career pathways. More than half of the program’s graduates have been women and people of color – but it will have difficulty scaling up and serving all the students it could without more support from the state.
Other infrastructure leaders are also recognizing community colleges as the most effective path to finding and training skilled workers. East Bay Municipal Utility District and Southern California Edison – both members of the California Energy & Utility Workforce Consortium – have collaborated with local community colleges to evolve curriculum to better train workers in the energy and water industries.
California must: recruit faculty from the infrastructure sector; scale up proven technical programs; strengthen the basic skills, financial aid and other academic supports vulnerable students need to succeed; create national industry-recognized credentials that are portable state-to-state and institution-to-institution, and improve completion rates for community college students in career technical education programs.
This will be tough to do given the state’s budget crunch.