‘Some college’ pays — for some

California faces a shortage of middle-skill workers with technical certificates and associate degrees, reports the Public Policy Institute of California.

In some fields, workers with “some college” earn no more than high school graduates: Child-care workers, solar installers, bakers, massage therapists, personal care aides, housekeepers and hairstylists don’t improve their earnings by attending college, PPIC reports. However, the wage premium is high for health care providers and technicians with a certificate or two-year degree.


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SOURCE: Calculations from American Community Survey 2010–2012.

California community colleges should expand training opportunities for allied health care workers in the next decade to meet growing demand, reports PPIC.

Allied health care jobs are technical—licensed vocational nurses, dental hygienists, and imaging technologists, for example—and support positions, such as certified nursing assistants, medical assistants, and dental assistants. They typically require an associate degree or post-secondary certificate that can often be completed in fewer than two years.

However, the number of associate degrees and postsecondary certificates in health programs awarded by the community colleges has increased only slightly in the past decade. Most of these additional degrees have been in nursing.

For-profit colleges have expanded allied health training, enrolling many Latino and black students. However, for-profit students would pay $20,000 to $35,000 for a licensed vocational nurse certificate program,  estimates the report. A similar program would cost  $4,500 at community colleges.

‘Dirty jobs’ pay middle-class wages

Shortage of middle skills workers a growing concern
A one-year certificate in diesel technology helped Julio Lopez secure a job as a lead fleet technician. Credit: Rob Vanya, San Jacinto College .

Half of teens have “little or no interest” in blue-collar jobs, according to a survey by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association (FMA). These are low-paying “dirty jobs,” high school students and their parents believe.

Because of the stigma, Houston is facing a shortage of welders, electricians, pipefitters, machinists, auto mechanics and manufacturing workers, say business leaders. UpSkill Houston is working with San Jacinto College to attract more young people to what are now called “middle-skill” jobs.

Julio Lopez earned a one-year certificate of technology from San Jacinto College’s diesel technology program.  He started as a diesel tech at $18 an hour. After three years and a promotion, he now earns in the “mid- to upper-20s an hour” with the potential to move higher. He loves the work.

“I started as a kid, changing oil and worked my way up to eventually building engines,” he said. “To take something that will not run and disassemble it, repair it, and rebuild it brings a feeling of real accomplishment and pride.”

With a two-year degree in welding technology from San Jacinto College, Emily Choate earned $25 to $35 an hour as a welder and welding inspector. She now teaches welding at San Jacinto.

Welding is an art, said Choate. “It’s like painting, but my canvas is metal, my paint is a weld puddle, and my brush is an electrode. When I drop that hood and strike an arc, the whole world disappears, and it’s just me and that weld.”

Tech ed: Where’s the money?

Endorsing career tech education isn’t enough, said Snap-On CEO Nicholas Pinchuk at the American Association of Community Colleges’(AACC) Workforce Development Institute. Business, government and education leaders must invest in technical education and make it a legislative priority, he said.  “The goal of an education is not a degree; it’s a career.”

Technical education also continues to fight an image problem, Pinchuk said. Technical jobs, such as welding and auto mechanics, are seen as a “consolation prize” rather than as a foundation to the U.S. economy. People agree these jobs are needed, but don’t think they are good enough for their kids.

“These are jobs that other kids do,” Pinchuk said. “We have lost the respect for the dignity of work.”

Many community colleges do a good job working with local businesses, but more two-year colleges need to align curricula with jobs, Pinchuk said. Snap-On works closely with Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin, where the company has its headquarters.

The Walmart Foundation will give AACC $4.19 million to create a new job training initiative focused on middle skills, it announced at SDI.

Closing the skills gap

With nearly 11 million Americans out of work — and 4 million unfilled jobs —  closing the skills gap is a priority write Jamie Dimon, president of JPMorgan Chase, and Marlene Seltzer, who runs Jobs for the Future, in Politico.

“Middle-skill” workers such as machinists, technicians and health care workers are in demand, they write. These jobs require job training and sometimes an associate degree, but not a bachelor’s degree.

Dimon’s company has launched New Skills at Work, which will analyze skills gaps in major U.S. cities — and in Europe. “These gap reports will then inform the allocation of $250 million in grants over five years to support non-profits like Jobs for the Future that have a track record of designing successful skill-development programs.”

Career tech education is gaining momentum in high schools, reports Ed Week‘s CollegeBound.

The new Mississippi Scholars Tech Master program will recognize high school seniors who pass a career-certification test, maintain a 2.5 grade point average, score 18 of higher on the ACT, and complete 40 hours of community service. An existing program honors college-prep students.

Oregon will spend more on vocational programs in middle and high schools. The emphasis is on developing skills in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has proposed increased support for career and technical schools to train more STEM-skilled workers.

A future for all: Build paths to skilled jobs

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.”

College for who?

“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.”

Skills gap widens — or does it?

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.

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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 diamond economy

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.

Will 4-year schools help fill skills gap?

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.”

CCs need help to train skilled workers

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.