What Middle School Students Need to Know about Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree

Knowing of American Experiment’s project, “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree,” a producer at Minnesota Public Radio recently sent us the printed version of a very good story written by Ashley Gross and Jon Marcus for National Public Radio titled “High-Paying Trade Jobs Sit Empty, While High School Grads Line Up for University.”  After reading it, the first thing I said was it touched every major theme that John Hinderaker, Katherine Kersten, Catrin Thorman, and I, among others at the Center, have been writing about.

Yet even if that compliment was a bit of an overstatement (it was), it doesn’t subtract from the usefulness of what Gross and Marcus wrote.  The following are two annotated points of mine regarding two points of theirs, with the first item pertaining to an important matter, I realized, I hadn’t thought enough about.

The two reporters write: In contrast to men and women with four-year degrees, “People with career and technical educations are . . . significantly more likely to be working in their fields of study.”  It got me thinking of a meeting at the University of Minnesota a while back in which a dean of the College of Liberal Arts lamented how some students thought a B.A. in history would make them historians, or that a B.A. in philosophy would make them philosophers.  Generally, it’s Ph.D.’s that make people historians and philosophers, or physicists and biologists, not B.A.’s or B.S.’s.

Yet an Associate’s degree or perhaps a certificate in plumbing or pipefitting does, in fact, allow recipients to call themselves plumbers or pipefitters with a straight face.  Granted, they will need continuing training to become journeymen.  (Journeypersons, if you prefer.)  But if their aim was to become a plumber or pipefitter, they essentially succeeded.  As for our Baccalaureate winners, who knows what they will wind up doing occupationally for the rest of their lives.  It might well be wonderful and fulfilling, but there’s also a good chance it won’t be what they originally planned.

I say all of this as a great fan and advocate for the liberal arts.  But I’m also a great fan and advocate of other educational routes.  Or as a harmoniously prescient family sang a generation or two ago, “Different Strokes for Different Folks.”

A second matter.  Gross and Marcus write this time of a new report in which the “Washington State Auditor found that good jobs in the skilled trades are going begging because students are being universally steered to bachelor’s degrees.”  And that among other things, the auditor “recommended that career guidance—including choices that require less than four years of college—start as early as seventh grade.”

As you may know, I’m writing a book about this constellation of issues with the tentative title, Educational Roads Less Travelled: How America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees Limits Careers and Economic Prosperity.  I’m guessing the first part of the name might be changed for not being scary enough.  But whatever the title winds up being, the book will contain comments by educational and business leaders about how career guidance should, in fact, start when boys and girls are in the seventh grade or thereabouts.

The owner of a sophisticated machine shop, for instance, talked about how businesses haven’t worked sufficiently with high schools and middle schools, “which is really where we need to start.”  Think, she said, “if you were in Germany.  Kids there know about career paths other than four-year college degrees.  But kids here aren’t exposed to them, and we in business are the ones who must get out there and educate and excite them.  Bring their parents into our plants to show how clean and spotless they are.  Show them how much brain power we need because they don’t have a clue about what’s behind our doors.”

Given that high school guidance counselors are consistently overwhelmed by student and family traumas, and the fact they usually don’t know very much about modern manufacturing and the trades anyway, I’m all for this.

A community college president agreed with the machine shop entrepreneur: “We need to expose the youth of this country at the very earliest stage, even before fifth grade, letting them know the opportunities available to them.”

Some might view comments like these, well-meaning though they may be, as potentially hospitable to the kind of tracking in which low-income and minority young people were denied the kinds of academic offerings, and subsequent jobs and careers, available to other young people without a second thought.  I fully see why some skeptics are nervous, but we will not have tracking redux, for no other reason than more than enough people won’t allow it.

For a fuller discussion of reasons why, my editor and I are hoping Educational Roads Not Travelled, or whatever it winds up being called, will be available for Christmas shopping.