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How Our Gap in Perception Turns into a Skills Gap

Our country’s skewed perception of what defines higher education contributes to the skills gap.

Adele Lemm | Meritize

Skilled workers keep our electricity running, our foundation steady, our families healthy and much more. It is no secret that we rely on skills-based professions for the functionality of our society. In fact, eighty-five percent of Americans believe that tradespeople are important to maintain our standard of living. With a large percentage of the skilled workforce approaching retirement, jobs are plentiful – so why are we struggling to find students to pursue them as a career?

Part of the problem is that not all students are fully aware of their options. According to research done by Degree Query, thirty percent of students only go to a four-year college because they think it is the natural progression after high school and twenty-three percent only go because it is expected of them. This brings us to the conclusion that fifty-three percent of students only attend four-year college because they think it is expected of them.

Unfortunately, the problem does not stop with students being unaware of their options – students who are both aware and interested in skills-based careers are being discouraged from pursuing them. Higher education is defined as “education beyond high school,” so why are we not providing skills-based options, in addition to college, to students looking to further their education after high school?

Michelle Pearson, a mother and teacher, received a call of concern this past summer from her son’s guidance counselor. The school counselor told her, “I am calling to let you know of a concern about your son. We were discussing his future career plans and he said he absolutely is not going to college. He would prefer to go to trade school. I am a bit concerned, I think he really can do better than that.”

In her Education Week blog post, Pearson went on to refute the social stigma against these important careers and describe how a skills-based career is, in fact, a very smart path for students to pursue. She went into detail about how “skilled artisans and craftsmen are hard to find,” and their invaluable work cannot be replaced. Pearson continued on about how “opportunity is arising, demand is increasing, and supply is decreasing.”

Not only do skills-based training programs and schools fall into the higher education category, they also have a higher job placement rate and a cost of education that is typically a fraction of the much more promoted four-year degrees.

Despite the seemingly obvious benefits of pursuing a skills-based career, according to SkillsUSA, only one in three parents say that they would support their child’s decision to work in a skilled trade. This perception that skills-based professions are not as esteemed as a traditional four-year degree results in hundreds of thousands of jobs going unfilled. It is projected that we will need 10 million new skilled workers by 2020, but will we have enough new skilled professionals to fill the gap to maintain the functionality of our society?

Discouraging skills-based training for the sake of attending “more popular” – and more expensive – colleges only results in an increase of student debt, unemployment and the skills gap.

All forms of higher education are beneficial to the growth of an individual and attending a traditional college is still a great experience for those who can afford it and want to pursue a career that requires it. But let’s not overlook the proven benefits and opportunities that come with a skills-based career. Whether training to be a welder, teacher, pilot, doctor or lawyer, we need to encourage those who are looking to further their education beyond high school and not categorize one profession as more or less than another. As the author and social philosopher Michael Gurian said, “there is no single way to educate.”

It is time for us to step up and support our students and our children to contribute to the growth of our country in whatever way they can.