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“So where are you going to go to college?”

This was a question I was asked frequently as a high school senior — people wanted to know where I was going to be for the next few years of my life.

I don’t desire to disregard those who phrased their question as “what are you doing once you graduate?” nor do I intend to complain about those who assumed I would be attending a four-year school and were kind enough to inquire about that. What I do want to do is highlight the ways that assumption — and similar thought processes — can be harmful.

The reality is that numerous teenagers have little interest in attending college, and many of them know this fairly early. I had a close friend in high school who absolutely hated his classes and homework and had numerous fights with his parents and teachers over it. He spoke often of how glad he would be to be out of the school system and able to focus on his love for cars or “pretty much anything other than school.”

He currently works at a screen printing company back home, making very good money. He loves his job and is one of the most driven and fastest-advancing employees they’ve had in recent history. His job has flexible hours, but he often gets up early to be one of the first people to work. The guy who nearly failed some of his classes, slept on his desk, and didn’t seem like he cared about anything but cars and video games is even more successful than I thought he’d be once he got out of school. He’s a thoughtful boyfriend; he has a careful plan for his credit and his fiscal future; he’s still learning. He’s clearly much happier. He still doesn’t give half a damn about school.

This isn’t a “crazy conversion” story nor a “so there; school doesn’t matter” story. It’s a “recognize that this is common, you likely know some people like this, and school is important, but the current format doesn’t work well for everyone” story. The education system in the United States is severely broken (a discussion for another time) and we need to recognize that some schooling patterns become societal patterns. The way non-baccalaureate paths are denigrated influences the way those paths are populated and treated.

Specifically, this means recognizing that 1) skilled trades, or labor jobs that require specific training/expertise, are valuable, respectable vocations and that 2) we need to stop acting as if a four-year degree is the only “good” or successful option. Menial trades and services jobs are systematically being rendered obsolete through increased automation. Most skilled trades are unlikely to go that direction anytime sooner than jobs which require a bachelor’s degree. Electricians, plumbers, machinists, welders, auto mechanics, masons, carpenters, craftspeople and tradespeople will be around for a long time.

The services provided by those in the skilled trades are essential to the operation of many systems. From basic household needs to construction to manufacturing and design, technical jobs support the quality of life that many Americans are fortunate enough to enjoy. Despite the reputation trade jobs seem to have among many people, skilled trades often require significant training/intelligence and can be fairly lucrative.

The “job skills gap” has been much-discussed in the last number of years, as baby boomers have begun to exit the job market for retirement and leave more job openings than qualified workers. There are many complex factors involved in the assertion of a “skills gap.” Gig jobs, education, training, culture, and the way companies are defining “qualified workers” must all be considered. Regardless of cause, there is a disparity between workers and jobs which must be addressed.

In skilled trades, this gap is even more pronounced than many other types of occupations, as a number of the main fields have a majority of workers over 55 years old. The Virginia Manufacturer’s Association, in conjunction with other Va. trades groups published “The Skilled Trades Gap Analysis Report” in 2007 as an investigation into just how problematic these age statistics are. What they found was that the rate of new, qualified tradesmen was significantly less than the projected annual openings in Virginia. In most fields, this meant that less than 25 percent of the demand for workers was being met.

Numerous other states have been facing a similar problem, and the issue of overall hiring difficulties is a national one. As previously noted, there is some debate surrounding the concept of a general, national “skills gap.” Some say it is a “training gap,” a concept that confers more culpability onto employers, as they could be adjusting wages, partnering more with local institutions, and re-evaluating current hiring methods. While this argument is significant and must be fully engaged, the responsibility for qualified workers is not a dichotomous one that should be relegated exclusively to either education or employers. Both are problematic areas. The numbers continue to be problematic as apprenticeships have declined in the last decade. Shop classes and vocational- technical (vo-tech) programs in secondary education are continuing to be phased out in favor of college-readiness or “teach-to-the-test” (state standardized test prep) programming.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) states that employment opportunities have shifted dramatically in the last four to five decades towards higher educational attainment. This isn’t, however, just university degrees. Approximately 30 percent of jobs that previously only required secondary education (or less) now need additional non-degree training or an associate’s degree. The vast majority of these types of degree and certification programs are those that provide occupation-specific training. Many of these programs are through trade schools and technical schools.

Higher educational attainment makes for a more informed populace. I am a generalist and an enormous advocate of liberal arts education — diverse learning feeds curiosity. We cannot overlook some areas of study simply because they don’t follow the “college track.” That could be the difference between a well-educated, skilled employee in trades and an unhappy high school grad with little direction.

Passionate students who are exposed to programs they enjoy and who can engage with topics they find valuable are happier and more successful. Additionally, some education in skilled trades offers, if nothing else, options for lucrative side jobs, exciting hobbies, and “back-up plans” even to those who have no intention of pursuing a career in those fields.

The way we talk about trade/labor jobs in comparison to college needs to change. When our cultural values lie in baccalaureate degrees as inherently superior to other types of education, we condition people to disregard those areas. Those who still work in trades are devalued even though their jobs are essential to our economy and the general well-being of the country.

Clay Cordell

Business Manager

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