Trade Programs are Booming
Mike Rowe’s popular Dirty Jobs show ran from 2005-2012. It featured the skilled trades, many of which are “dirty jobs” — think mud, manure, and more. It also promoted the message that traditional college wasn’t for everyone. After all, if we’re all working behind a desk (like I am now), who will build our roads, bridges, and homes? Who will assemble our cars, or repair them? Who will install our electricity, plumbing, and HVAC systems?
It’s a message that seems to be resonating. While college enrollment is down about 15% over the last decade, other forms of training — credentials, apprenticeships, trade schools — are up big. Community colleges have been hit the hardest: Their numbers are down 37% since 2010. Complaints from students include red tape and faceless bureaucracies. Things like waiting a month to hear back from the financial aid office.
But the real elephant in the room is COVID. It heightened public concerns with regard to affordability, value, and the need for individualized attention, especially when in-person interactions fell to almost zero for a good 18 months or so. Coming out of the pandemic, we’re seeing a tight labor market. College is a harder sell for 18-19 year olds who can make $20/hour straight out of high school.
The Value of a (College) Degree
As a college professor, I work hard at giving my students as much value as possible. As the airlines say, “We know you have a choice of carriers, so thank you for flying with us.” At the same time, every educator knows that post-high school education isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing. I also know that as a father of three growing children (now 12, 15, and 17). Each must select that path that makes the most sense for him or her.
Public skepticism toward college rose during the pandemic, but it started earlier. Doug Belkin summarized the findings of a 2023 Wall Street Journal-NORC poll on public perceptions about college. He writes, “In 2013, 53% of Americans were bullish on college, and 40% weren’t. In 2017, 49% of Americans thought a four-year degree would lead to good jobs and higher earnings, compared with 47% who didn’t.” And today? The pendulum has swung negative: “56% of Americans think earning a four-year degree is a bad bet compared with 42% who retain faith in the credential.” That’s a big shift in just a decade.
What’s going on? Colleges that asked for full tuition even when they pivoted to fully online classes weren’t doing themselves any favors. Their decision reflected negatively on the industry. But other storylines have also weighed on sentiment. A 2011 book entitled Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses was published by a respected academic house. It made the case that students spent far less time studying and far more time on entertainment than we cared to admit. Now mix in — over the last decade — skyrocketing student debt numbers, an amenities arms race, and ballooning administrative costs coupled with a growing dependence on low-paid adjuncts. Then there’s the rampant progressivism and group think, especially at state schools and the elite privates. You can see why a large chunk of the population finds the picture off-putting.
That said, some nuance is lost when we paint with too broad a brush. For example, student debt levels, nationally, are driven by the growth in graduate students (many of whom make top dollar upon completion). Undergraduate debt levels, on a per-student basis, are typically much lower. Of course, the high-fliers who can’t repay are the ones who make the news. So, folks perceive it’s more common than it really is (statistically). The amenities arms race has largely cooled as campuses have shifted to spending on academic and social supports, such as counseling services. And while “limited learning” might characterize the vibe at some campuses, others are putting out stellar results year after year. Places like Hillsdale College are seeing record numbers of applicants.
Alternative ≠ Inferior
It is undeniably a good thing that more Americans are awakened to the fact that four-year college isn’t the right path for everyone. In contrast to four-year colleges, trade programs are shorter, less expensive, and — for many — offer a direct path to meaningful work at reasonable entry-level salaries. For example, new hires in the auto repair space can expect to make $40-60K per year. A journeyman electrician can make $80K per year — and $100K or more after graduation. If you like to be on your feet, working with your hands, and seeing, tangibly, the fruits of your labor, a quicker path to financial independence can be highly appealing.
Some trade schools, like the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT), even have a co-op program which allows students nearing graduation to work in their field a few days a week while finishing their diploma. Brayden Johnson, 20, is a fifth trimester industrial maintenance automation student. He works the night shift as an electrical maintenance tech in a local factory, earning $26/hour. It’s a job he hopes to stay in when he graduates later this spring.
Data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that mechanic and repair trade programs saw an enrollment jump of 11.5% from spring 2021 to 2022. In construction trades, the increase was 19.3%. In culinary programs, the uptick was 12.7%. What do these have in common, besides being skilled trades and shorter programs? Of necessity, these kinds of training were done fully in-person, even during the pandemic. Traditional colleges, on the other hand, lost enrollment over this same stretch — even as they returned to in-person classes — because students were frustrated with their online experience in the prior year. Go figure.
The average employee in a skilled trade is older, and closer to aging out.
For example, the average building inspector is about 58 years old. They’re leaving faster than they’re coming in, says Tony Chaffin, leader of the construction program at Texas State Technical College. Steve Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, observes that “the federal government only spends $1 on career training for every $6 it puts into college prep.” That doesn’t create enough of a pipeline for construction workers.
The trades don’t necessarily pay less, either. HVAC techs, air traffic controllers, construction inspectors, respiratory therapists and cardiovascular technicians all earn more than, or about the same as, the median bachelor’s degree holder. That according to a 2021 study from Tony Carnevale at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
And while a robot or an AI might someday write this article for you (I’m in trouble), it’s not going to fix your car, your air conditioner, or your toilet.
Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).