Lifting the stigma on vocational education and technical training

Where did all the skilled labor go? That’s the question currently facing Twin Cities builders.

According to a recent Star Tribune article, a shortage of skilled workers is making it difficult for construction firms to fill jobs.

Labor leaders say the industry has struggled to attract young people to replenish the pool of workers drained by the 2008-2009 recession, even though construction jobs pay above-average wages and most require just a high school diploma.

One reason for that, says Tim Worke, chief executive of the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, is that vocational training has been devalued. “Everyone has been told that you have to have a four-year degree to be prosperous at life,” Worke said.

There’s a cultural bias in favor of four-year degrees that pressures many young people into thinking four years of college is the only valuable route for a student to take. That’s what everyone who wants a future does, right?

Center of the American Experiment’s major, multi-year initiative called “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree” aims to show students and parents there are educational routes to well-paying jobs and fulfilling careers that don’t require a baccalaureate degree.

But there’s a stigma associated with vocational schooling and technical jobs that first needs to be eliminated. A tradesman shared his thoughts on this with the Star Tribune.

James Mahler, a 35-year-old project manager for River City Tile & Underlayment in Chanhassen, joined the trades at age 19. “College was never something that appealed to me,” he said. “I was eager to begin working and making my own career path.”

“We make extremely good money, work reasonable hours, get to be active and build actual communities within the Twin Cities,” he said. “I want young people to realize that it is not a step down to go into construction.”

No one should be dissuaded from seeking a four-year degree if that is his or her dream. But vocational education is a very viable option. It’s important to build recognition of and support for other routes that lead to successful jobs and careers in Minnesota.

Find out more about the Great Jobs initiative and education alternatives by reading my colleague Katherine Kersten’s column here.