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University or Skilled Trades? A False Choice

By Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann

More post-secondary education of all types needed

Many students contemplating life after high school confront the difficult decision of “What’s next?” Often they grapple with whether to work toward a two- or a four-year degree or to pursue a skilled trade.

Greg Handel, vice president of education and talent at the Detroit Regional Chamber, said this either-or narrative needs to be put to rest once and for all.

“The focus should not be a debate on a four-year degree versus skilled trades,” Handel explained. “We need to become more educated as a region, period.”

And the data clearly supports Handel’s line of thinking. According to a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, 70 percent of jobs in Michigan will require some postsecondary education by 2020. Postsecondary education is generally defined as any education beyond a high school diploma. It can include such credentials as a technical certification, an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree.

Johnson QuoteThe Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based independent, private foundation committed to increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates and other credentials, has set a national goal of 60 percent of Americans with quality postsecondary education attainment by 2025. Michigan has followed suit.

“This is a national goal being adopted around the country,” Handel said. “Approximately 40 percent of the state population is at this level of postsecondary education attainment now, primarily holding an associate or a bachelor’s degree. It’s harder to measure the skilled trades. The bottom line is that we need more educated people across the board.”

The Workforce Intelligence Network (WIN), a Southeast Michigan collaborative of nine community colleges, seven workforce boards and economic development partners in nine counties, has a primary goal to provide real-time labor market intelligence to allow for greater regional talent system effectiveness.

“We look at STEM jobs driving the Southeast Michigan economy,” WIN Executive Director Lisa Katz said. “A lot don’t require a four-year degree. We never want to discourage people from pursuing a four-year degree, which certainly can open doors, but we also don’t want to discourage people from thinking deliberately about other pathways to a career.”

Katz is quick to point out that growth and demand in “middle-skills” jobs is almost even with growth for those careers requiring a bachelor’s degree.

According to WIN research, 20,000 of the new jobs employers will add in Southeast Michigan in the next five years will be for workers with at least some postsecondary education. Of those 20,000 jobs, 37 percent are considered middle-skill jobs and will require more training than a high school diploma, but not a bachelor’s degree. This is compared to 38 percent of those 20,000 new jobs that will require a bachelor’s degree or higher.

“Middle-skills jobs pay a living wage of more than $15 an hour (a salary of $31,200),” Katz said. “Examples of this type of job could include: a welder, a nursing assistant, a phlebotomist or an X-ray technician.”

The Michigan College Access Network is another nonprofit organization focused on creating statewide initiatives to increase college readiness, participation and completion, particularly among low-income students, first generation college-going students and students of color.

“It’s dangerous to discourage students from pursuing higher levels of postsecondary educational attainment in favor of pursuing lower levels of postsecondary educational attainment,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Network.

Johnson said that to reach the state’s goal of 60 percent postsecondary education attainment by 2025, the labor market will require a workforce of which 16 percent hold a certificate, 11 percent hold an associate degree, 22 percent hold a bachelor’s degree, and 11 percent hold an advanced degree. For comparison, those percentages were 8 percent, 10 percent, 18 percent and 11 percent respectively in 2013, according to U.S. Census data.

“We shoot ourselves in the economic foot when we lift one option up by denigrating another,” Johnson said. “Economic development partners, colleges and universities have been competing for the same students – for the same slice of pie – when really we need more students pursuing postsecondary education attainment in general. It is not either-or. We need to expand the piece of the pie to reach more students.”

For her part, Katz advises students, parents and job seekers to look at their education as a continuum.

“There are well-paying jobs that can be pathways to higher paying jobs down the road,” Katz Quoteshe said. “The conversation should be about getting some kind of postsecondary education and tailoring it to what works for you.”

To help make students aware of their postsecondary education options, WIN has a career liaison embedded on its team. This individual’s work is funded through a state grant that is part of the Career Jump Start Program.

“Her job is to go to schools and help kids understand their career options,” Katz explained. “She shares information about apprenticeships, job-shadowing opportunities and mentorships. I have done presentations to students and parents about options, so they can take time and build skills before making a large investment in something that may not be right for them.”

Handel agreed. “Any of these postsecondary education options can be a career springboard,” he said. “I like to say that it’s not a career ladder; it’s a career rock wall. Your career path doesn’t have to go straight up. Many will find their career paths move sideways, and then go up and sideways again. You can build on your technical education by going back for a bachelor’s degree down the road. From there, you could even go onto management. Ultimately, we need to promote a culture of education.”