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
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.