“College or bust!” seems to be the message at many American high schools, where senior year is often just one last hurdle to clear before students move on to a four-year university. But this culture of SATs and college fairs misses an important point: universities aren’t for everyone.
In Switzerland, students regularly choose vocational training over a free university education. For many young grads, this decision is a no-brainer, as vocational education in the country pairs apprenticeships with part-time classroom instruction, creating a clear path to gainful employment. Switzerland’s youth population has less than 3% unemployment, and the average starting annual salary of vocational graduates is about $50,000.
It sounds like the Swiss have created a great system, not just for students but for the employers who will hire them. Why can’t the U.S. do something like that? The truth is, we’re already doing it. But vocational education often comes with a stigma that discourages students and their advisors from exploring it as a serious resource for a bright future.
Shaking the Stigma
Vocational classes in high school like wood shop, home economics, typing, and drafting offer useful skill development for today’s careers, and can create a pathway to further vocational training and employment. But too often, they become an “academic dumping ground” for struggling students. And after high school, vocational programs are seen as a lesser option than universities, a place where those who can’t get into a “real” college end up, like it or not.
Yet as university students struggle to find jobs post-graduation, this “lesser” option of vocational training becomes increasingly promising. The unemployment rate for young adults is 14.2%, close to double the overall rate of 7.9%. It translates to about 2 million unemployed young adults. Yet, there are 3.9 million job openings, many in health care and social assistance, leisure and hospitality, and manufacturing, all industries that seek out vocationally educated graduates but can’t seem to find them.
This mismatch between unemployed workers and job openings is what’s known as the “skills gap.” The gap is increasingly being made up of middle skills jobs, ones that require more than a high school education but less than a four-year degree. By 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that middle-skill jobs will make up about 45% of all job openings, including nursing, computer technology, and skilled manufacturing. And companies can’t find enough qualified workers to fill them.
For some students, especially those concerned with launching a career after graduation, vocational training may be a great choice, and it should be considered with as much seriousness as a four-year university.
Making the Choice
For many vocational students, the decision to pursue technical training is all about following the career path they’ve chosen. Vocational education typically leads graduates directly into a career, thanks to training and educational resources that cater to building in-demand skills for a particular job. If you have a career plan in mind, vocational school can help you make the jump from student to professional quickly with job-specific training.
Kenna Primm, director of marketing for Roush Yates Performance Products and a 2010 graduate of UTI-Mooresville at NASCAR Technical Institute, chose vocational school because it gave her the opportunity to concentrate specifically on applications for her chosen career. For Primm, UTI-Mooresville was never a lesser choice than college. Rather, she says, “it was the premier school to get where I wanted to be in my career.”
“Being in a vocational school gave me a leg up on the competition because I was gaining hands on experience along with my education,” says Primm.
Robert Ciccarelli, who graduated from both building trades and heavy equipment training to work for a generator restoration company, feels similarly. Ciccarelli pursued his trade education because it could lead him to the kind of career he was looking for, allowing him to work with his hands. To enter his line of work, an educational background in the trades is a prerequisite, as all of his coworkers have similar credentials. So his choice of vocational education was essential to finding a great job. And, he says, “I never really was the college type.”
With his vocational training and on-the-job experience, Ciccarelli is set to enjoy a solid job outlook. Employment of electrical and electronics installers and repairers is expected to grow by 3% over the next decade. That’s slower than the average for all occupations, but growth rates vary by specialty, and applicants with formal education will have the best opportunities.
Workers like Primm and Ciccarelli are a part of the growing trend of excellent mid-level careers that don’t require a four-year degree but still offer good pay and job security. More than that, a traditional college-level education would be out of place in an environment like Ciccarelli’s, where he says the hands-on skills he learned were among the most valuable part of his education.
Vocational training is the most appropriate choice for many careers, and it shouldn’t be considered less useful than a college degree. “Our students are incredibly bright and would succeed in a traditional environment; however, they are passionate about career fields that we offer the world’s best training for,” says John Dodson, UTI-Mooresville at NASCAR Technical Institute community/NASCAR team relations director.
Dodson believes that vocational education may offer a better career option than college for students who feel more comfortable receiving hands-on training. As for career growth, Dodson sees many positive opportunities for the future: “As baby boomers start retiring, the job market will continue to increase and the demand for skilled technicians will continue to grow. If someone wants to learn a trade, jobs are going to be out there.”
Still, for some students, vocational education may not be a clear choice. If you’re struggling with the decision to pursue vocational training or a college degree, Association for Career and Technical Education representative Ashley Parker recommends that you explore vocational education options while still in high school.
Students should also realize that vocational education doesn’t have to be their final option. Learning is a lifelong process, and college will still be there if you decide to expand your education later. There is no single educational profile of vocational students, as students may go on to pursue a variety of different options. Says Parker: “Not every student will go on to a four-year university, but not every student who pursues vocational education necessarily does not go on to a four-year university.”
And even if your educational journey takes you to college after vocational training, your skills will remain valuable wherever you go. Says Dodson, “If you’re trained in a vocational trade, you will always be in demand.”
Applying to Vocational School
Making the decision to pursue vocational education is important, as is the school you choose. With the right education, you can start your career with skills, hands-on training, and career-building experience. How do you know when you’ve found the right one?
- Carefully consider your choices. While your nearest community college may actually be the best choice for the program you’re interested in, don’t let that be your default option. College students typically spend an extensive amount of time and effort finding a school that offers the programs, culture, and career opportunities they’re looking for, and so should you. Many local schools offer quality programs for careers like nursing or manufacturing, but specialty programs like UTI-Mooresville’s NASCAR tech may require a more stringent search.
- Seek out quality. If you’re serious about pursuing vocational education, you’ll want to study with instructors and classmates that take the work as seriously as you do. To determine the quality level of a school, the FTC recommends that you find out what the facilities are like, what the school provides, who the instructors are, and what the program’s success rate is. You can determine a program’s success by looking at its completion rate, job placement, debt on graduation, and asking for recent graduates who you can contact about their school experience.
- Find a school that works with your needs. There are so many options out there that you shouldn’t have trouble finding a program that fits what you’re looking for. You may find that you want to work while you’re in school, and an online or part-time program can give you the flexibility that you need. If you prefer to push through and complete your training quickly, a full-time program may be a good choice, online or off. Consider how your options fit with the student lifestyle you prefer.
- Find out your financial options. Even though vocational school rarely takes the same amount of time as college, it can still be expensive. Primm recommends that students stay positive and seek out solutions that will help them pay for school. “Ask plenty of questions, and don’t assume scholarships aren’t available to you just because it’s a vocational school,” she says. The FTC encourages potential students to know what they’re getting into: find out how many graduates are successfully paying back student loans.
- Look for career assistance. Most vocational schools will offer some sort of career assistance, but vocational graduates will have varying levels of post-graduation job market success. Ask for evidence that your career-specific training can actually get a job. The FTC advises students to ask how many graduates have found jobs in their chosen field, and find out their average starting salary.
Is vocational education right for you? That’s a question that only you can answer. But you won’t know until you take the first step and get started. Says Ciccarelli, “You’ve got to apply yourself. You’ve got to want to do it. Find out what you like doing, and go after it.”