The last time you had an electrical problem, did you call a college professor or a doctor or a tech company in another country? Or, like most people, did you call a local electrician? Could any of those other people have helped you? Probably not. Did the electrician arrive immediately or did you have to wait your turn because he was so busy? Did this electrician have a college diploma? Most likely he didn’t, but he did have postsecondary training in a technical field and hours of actual experience. As innovations impact his field, workers like him will return to a community college or a technical school to upgrade their skills so they can stay competitive. In the process, they will make $80,000 a year. Does this sound unlikely?

Not all high-wage, high-demand jobs require a four-year degree. Consider the facts: More than 80 percent of industry respondents to the 2005 Skills Gap survey by the National Association of Manufacturers indicated that they are experiencing a shortage of qualified workers, with 13 percent reporting a severe shortage. More than 90 percent also reported a shortage of qualified skilled production employees, such as machinists, operators, craft workers, distributors and technicians. The fastest-growing and largest sources of high-skills employment in the economy go begging for technical workers because so few teens are choosing these careers. The problem for these fields is not an undersupply of college graduates, but an undersupply of technically skilled graduates.

While there are those who think that a four-year degree is the only way to achieve economic security, national statistics show that the current job market does not necessarily support that thinking. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of jobs requiring technical degrees has increased significantly while the number requiring four-year professional degrees has remained consistent at about 20 percent of the market. The percentage of jobs calling for a technical or associate’s degree has grown from 15 percent in 1950 to 65 percent today. Further, the department predicted in 2005 that the job market will still need only 20 percent of the workforce to have four-year degrees in 2010, but the need for technical skills and industry certification will continue to grow. Yet the push for young students today is the baccalaureate degree, without equal consideration for careers that are in high-demand fields.

Career technical education traditionally focuses on high-skill careers in high-demand and high-growth fields, with emphasis on varying levels of education, from a certificate program to two- or four-year degrees. The goal is linked to strong economic competitiveness. Data from the 2004 National Assessment of Vocational Education by the U.S. Office of Vocational and Adult Education indicated that students enrolled in Career Technical Education classes over the past 10 years also took more higher-level academic courses than previously, that scores on academic achievement exams rose significantly more among CTE students than among non-CTE students over the same period of time and that CTE students’ earnings increase about 2 percent for each CTE course they complete, making the benefits of technical training evident.

Students who are focused in their CTE classes often are successful earlier in their careers. Take the case of Michelle. In her automotive technology class in high school, Michelle restored a 1988 Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. With a lifelong passion for automobiles and engines, she worked at a local dealership as an extern for three years, through high school and while continuing her education at the community college. Successfully participating in national skills competitions gave her the confidence to pursue her desire to become a certified mechanical technician. She takes classes to stay current in her field and has received numerous awards for her work. Michelle has worked at the dealership for four years, earning more than $75,000 a year.

In her State of the State speech in February, Gov. Jennifer Granholm said there are 84,000 unfilled jobs in Michigan. While some require a four-year degree, many of those jobs require postsecondary technical certifications, including skilled trades, plumbing, welding and tool-and-die making. In the past two years there also has been an emphasis on entrepreneurship as a means of improving Michigan’s economy through new technologies. Entrepreneurs tend to be like eagles — flying alone. Traditional bachelor degree programs often do not meet the needs of these innovators who develop markets in new and emerging fields. Rather, entrepreneurs need a wide range of technical skills to be successful. Educational programs that offer industry-based certifications and those that can rapidly modify curriculum to reflect advancements in technology will attract and support the creative entrepreneurs of the future.

Michigan’s economy is at a critical juncture. The globalization of business and industry requires people in the workforce who can apply, upgrade and adapt their learning to meet the new challenges. Biotechnology, DNA forensics, robotics and aquaculture are careers that are far different today than 10 years ago. This is the future of our children and our society: an ever-spiraling series of career changes that require increasing levels of technical knowledge. A career-focused education, with strong technical skills development, can supply that knowledge for the students of Michigan and provide the economic stability we need to remain competitive.

It is important to push the goal of higher education for all students. However, when we focus only on the outcome of a four-year degree, and not the path to a high-wage, high-demand career, we may be losing out on many opportunities to make our citizens truly competitive. It is imperative that we consider all options in seeking an answer to Michigan’s economic future.

Monika Leasure and Eugene Pierce are regional administrators for Career Technical Education with the Macomb Intermediate School District and the Tuscola Intermediate School District, respectively.