While millions of young people pile up debt pursuing dead-end college degrees, there are good-paying jobs and careers available in half the time and at a fraction of the cost. Trade schools have seen a decline in enrollment in recent years, even as enrollment at universities continues to climb. In the meantime, the soaring U.S. economy has exposed a glaring need for skilled labor in a multitude of trades. Some industries most in need right now are aircraft manufacturing, construction, dental hygiene, even funeral services.
The need for skilled labor in technology and health sciences fields has changed the educational paradigm for young people, according to Steve DeWitt, deputy executive director of Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE). "It used to be that almost everyone was directed to a four-year college degree, and if that didn't work for you, you went in to the workplace," he says. "But in reality there are so many other options out there now...we have apprenticeships, technical schools, community colleges, area career tech centers."
The Trump Administration has gotten on board the effort to close the skills gap. Last month, the President signed an extension of the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which uses federal funds to promote technical and trade skills. At the signing, President Trump said, "There has never been a better time to learn a trade."
Not only are trade jobs in high demand, but they often pay much better than the types of entry level jobs available with a four-year degree. "If people look at the salaries, and really sit down and explore some of these positions and careers, I think they would learn of the value immediately," says DeWitt.
Overall, DeWitt believes some people are better suited for four-year colleges and others for learning a trade. The key is to tap into young people's ambitions early on, even before high school. "I think we need to, as a nation, start to look more individually at each person and what their career aspirations are, and then identify what's the best way forward for them," he says. "It doesn't mean they can't switch paths along the way, but I think the more intentional and prepared students are earlier, the better suited they're going to be for the next step."