Why ‘College Or Bust’ Is the Wrong Message for High School Graduates

“Middle jobs” provide decent salaries with some additional training beyond high school, without the time or financial commitment of a bachelor’s degree.

Students participating in Pacific Gas and Electric's (PG&E) PowerPathway Pole Climbing Capstone course climb utility poles at the PG&E pole climbing training facility on June 8, 2012 in Oakland, California. The free three-week course teaches skills to better prepare individuals to compete for jobs such as pre-apprentice lineworker within the utility industry.
National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
May 15, 2014, 7:20 a.m.

More than 3 mil­lion teen­agers are ex­pec­ted to gradu­ate from high school over the next six weeks. For most of them, their choices are stark: Either find a job or enter col­lege.

But there’s no reas­on for stu­dents to view their ca­reer paths in such ex­tremes as work­ing at Mc­Don­ald’s or at­tend­ing Har­vard, says An­thony Carne­vale, dir­ect­or and re­search pro­fess­or at the Geor­getown Uni­versity Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force. Every year, the U.S. eco­nomy of­fers roughly 29 mil­lion “middle jobs,” as Carne­vale calls them: po­s­i­tions that de­mand some ad­di­tion­al school­ing or cer­ti­fic­a­tion bey­ond the 12th grade, but not the time or fin­an­cial com­mit­ment of a bach­el­or’s de­gree.

These jobs are in in­dus­tries as di­verse as health care, in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy, the arts, sales, food ser­vice, man­age­ment, and skilled man­u­fac­tur­ing. Middle jobs pay an av­er­age of $35,000, al­though more than 11 mil­lion of them provide a salary of $50,000 or more an­nu­ally, ac­cord­ing to re­search by the Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force. (The Census Bur­eau lists the cur­rent me­di­an salary in the U.S. at $51,017.)

Most im­port­ant, these jobs of­fer non-col­lege-bound kids the chance of a de­cent eco­nom­ic life. That’s a par­tic­u­larly im­port­ant caveat, be­cause those with just a high-school dip­loma in­creas­ingly find them­selves stuck in dead-end jobs and shut out of the middle class. “What we’re miss­ing now is an al­tern­at­ive path­way for people who don’t go to col­lege,” Carne­vale says. “We know that ap­plied cur­riculums work bet­ter, not just for less-pre­pared stu­dents but for every­one.”

Carne­vale and his team of re­search­ers have iden­ti­fied five ways to pre­pare today’s high school gradu­ates for these middle jobs:

  • More ap­pren­tice­ships. Cur­rently just 0.3 per­cent of em­ploy­ment in the U.S. comes from ap­pren­tice­ships. Yet pro­grams in states such as Wis­con­sin have demon­strated the be­ne­fits of this type of learn­ing, par­tic­u­larly for stu­dents in­ter­ested in high-skilled jobs in man­u­fac­tur­ing, trans­port­a­tion, or con­struc­tion.
  • Em­ploy­er-based train­ing. This es­sen­tially means that work­ers learn skills on the job, with train­ing that lasts any­where from three months to a year. It does not cost the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment any ex­tra money, be­cause the fin­an­cial bur­den falls on em­ploy­ers. One-third of all blue-col­lar jobs and one-quarter of sci­ence, tech­no­logy, en­gin­eer­ing, and math jobs re­quire more than one year of this type of train­ing.
  • In­dustry-based cer­ti­fic­a­tions. Want to be­come an EMT, li­censed nurse prac­ti­tion­er, or cer­ti­fied nurs­ing as­sist­ant? All of these jobs in the grow­ing field of health care re­quire in­dustry-based cer­ti­fic­ates. And de­mand for these cer­ti­fic­a­tions comes from the private sec­tor and the labor mar­ket in­stead of law­makers; this means that em­ploy­ers see the need in the com­ing years for work­ers with these skills.
  • Post-high school cer­ti­fic­a­tions. These cer­ti­fic­ates pre­pare stu­dents for a spe­cif­ic ca­reer niche without tak­ing as much time to com­plete as a col­lege de­gree. Jobs that re­quire this cer­ti­fic­a­tion in­clude auto mech­an­ics, com­puter and in­form­a­tion ser­vices, cer­tain health care po­s­i­tions, or cos­met­o­logy. The best-case scen­ario is that men with these cer­ti­fic­ates can earn as much as $72,000 an­nu­ally, provided they work in com­puter or in­form­a­tion ser­vices.
  • As­so­ci­ate’s de­grees. These de­grees of­fer a nice boost in earn­ings for high-school dip­loma hold­ers and usu­ally take half the time of a bach­el­or’s de­gree. Men with as­so­ci­ate de­grees, who spe­cial­ize in a spe­cif­ic oc­cu­pa­tion earn $49,000 an­nu­ally, com­pared with male high school grads (who earn $41,000), ac­cord­ing to the Geor­getown re­search­ers’ ana­lys­is of census data. Re­gistered nurses, po­lice of­ficers, and man­agers get the biggest salary boosts from these as­so­ci­ate’s de­grees.

The big takeaway: The main mes­sage from U.S. poli­cy­makers and lead­ers con­tin­ues to be that col­lege edu­ca­tion is the key to a middle-class life­style. Yet many work­ers could find de­cent jobs that can sup­port a fam­ily, with less school­ing and less stu­dent debt. They could be­ne­fit from these oth­er means of train­ing after high school — and from in­creased at­ten­tion to and pro­mo­tion of this al­tern­ate ca­reer track.

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