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Promote Trade Schools to Bridge the Skilled Worker Gap

Recent reports indicate college students are facing mounting levels of debt. Experian analysts revealed student loans have become the second largest debt class behind mortgages, surpassing even credit cards. The company reports 40 million Americans hold one or more student loans, averaging $29,000 per consumer and a record $1.2 trillion in total.

The typical bachelor’s degree program costs an average of $127,000 and takes four years to complete, according to this article on The Simple Dollar. Many high schools and parents wrongly consider colleges and universities the only post-secondary schooling option. However, trade school is a valuable opportunity for students, and it is easier on bank accounts.

In stark comparison to an expensive bachelor’s degree, a trade school degree costs $33,000 and can be completed in half the time. This allows graduates to enter the workforce sooner and pay off student loans more quickly, according to The Simple Dollar article.

It is a viable option for students seeking a skilled career, yet many high schools are rapidly removing options that allow students to take trade classes. Instead, they are traded for college preparatory programs, according to Forbes. This does a disservice to students by narrowing their career options. Many schools justify their push toward a college track based on earning potential, citing data such as National Center for Education Statistics figures that show workers aged 25-34 earn an average of $30,000 per year with a high school diploma, $35,700 with an associate’s degree (or equivalent) and $46,900 with a bachelor’s degree.

Trade schools and the vocational and technical training provided is essential for students who aren’t suited for intense, theoretical studies that a traditional bachelor’s program provides. Students who prefer to work with their hands need these trade electives in middle and high school to allow those interests to develop. Trade schools can provide students with the education and skills necessary for an interesting, well-paying career in many key industries.

As the economy reboots after the recession, housing markets have rebounded, providing openings for workers in the residential and commercial construction sectors. In Florida, for example, the construction industry was hit particularly hard during the recession. While overall employment declined 11.5 percent from pre-recession levels, Florida’s construction industry lost more than half its jobs, as employment fell 53.3 percent, according to the Financial News & Daily Record. As a result, scores of experienced workers left Florida to seek jobs in Texas, North Dakota and other states with better opportunities.

Today, Florida is experiencing a building boom; in fact, the state led the nation in new construction hires last year. Of 39 states with increases in construction industry hires between September 2013 and September 2014, Florida added 41,900 new jobs, for an 11.2 percent increase and the highest construction job creation in the United States, according to constructionequipment.com. Southwest Florida added 1,700 more construction workers between December 2013 and December 2014, for a 10 percent year-over-year gain. Ironically, such growth presents a challenge to employers that are finding it increasingly difficult to fill local construction positions with qualified workers—leading many to expand their hiring search to include out-of-state laborers.

This deficit prompts a second look at trade schools and the opportunities they provide. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), while the median hourly salary for all occupations is $17.09, construction and extraction workers earn $19.90 per hour. Furthermore, construction and extraction jobs rank in the top half of the BLS’s major occupational categories for hourly and annual earnings, surpassing career fields such as health care support, office and administrative support, sales, production and protective services. The BLS estimates construction and extraction workers earn an annual mean wage of $46,600, with substantially higher salaries for roles that require more skill and experience: $58,430 for construction and building inspectors, $65,150 for first-line supervisors and $94,590 for construction managers.

Vocational and technical schools provide work and wages to students while they are learning a trade, as opposed to studying and applying skills after completing a degree. While the college degree has become a symbol of success, a trade school degree has not been put on the same platform. But it ought to be. Americans need carpenters, plumbers, electricians, nurses, auto mechanics, police officers, firemen and construction workers.

The key is how to enact change: Principals, guidance counselors and teachers need to be more educated on non-collegiate programs. If they are better informed, they can provide better information to students with a world of careers open to them.

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