Teens Show Interest in Trade School, and That’s Okay

Raelee Nicholson is a top student in Charleroi Area High School south of Pittsburgh. She recently scored in the 88th percentile on her college board exams.

But Raelee wants to be a diesel mechanic, and plans on starting a two-year technical college degree after high school, despite discouragement from her parents, teachers and school guidance counselor.

The Wall Street Journal tells Raelee’s story in a recent article headlined “Trade School Wins Fans Among Teens.” According to the Journal,

The friction around the best path forward after high school is popping up around the country as anxious students and families try to figure out how to pay for four years of college….

The conversation is being fueled by questions about the value of a college degree, as well as the rising cost of tuition and student debt. Low unemployment and a strong job market also are raising prospects for tradespeople who are in high demand.

But the decision not to get a four-year degree “runs counter to 30 years of conventional wisdom,” the Journal observes.

In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, 19 percent of American students focused on vocational topics in high school, down from 24 percent in 1990. At the same time, among students who graduate from a four-year college, about one-third end up in jobs that don’t require a four-year degree, according to Tony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Current economic forces are leading to a “course correction” on college and career preparation, states the Journal. That means the stereotype that a four-year degree is a ticket to the good life is losing credibility. Last year, for example, 49 states enacted 241 policies to support career and technical education at the high school level.

The Journal profiles three states that are ahead of the curve in this respect.

One is California:

The California community college system launched a $6 million television campaign rebranding technical programs by showing off clean auto-repair shops and date-rich laboratories. A voice-over emphasized the benefits of shorter, cheaper pathways: “Less debt, more Doing.”

In Colorado, businessman Noel Ginsburg is running for governor on the success of CareerWise Colorado, a program he helped to start. That program (profiled in the Center’s Winter 2018 Thinking Minnesota magazine) links high school students with apprenticeships in high-demand fields like advanced manufacturing and information technology.

Finally, in Pennsylvania, Gov., Tom Wolf recently announced

a $50 million investment in workforce realignment that starts in K-12 education. The program builds on an effort to introduce children to job opportunities in the trades in grade school.

The focus is just beginning to pay off. After falling to a decade-long low in 2012, enrollment in career and technical education high-school programs in the state grew by five percent in 2017.

Raelee Nicholson, the Pennsylvania honor student who wants to be a diesel mechanic, is fine with that, says the Journal:

She doesn’t listen to those trying to dissuade her from her passion. “Diesel mechanics charge $80 an hour,” she said.