No to a college degree? How about yes to trade school?
At work in an apprentice school. Source: AFP/Pascal Pavani

Choosing vocational school over college isn’t exactly what every parent envisions their teenage child telling them in the lead up to their high school graduation.

Despite shifts in the job and education markets, trade schools still carry a stigma that it is the lesser option compared to college.

The Atlantic profiled the Funk family in Toledo, Ohio, and what they went through when their 16-year-old son, a senior in high school, was deciding what to do after high school. When he got excited about joining the video-production-design programme at Penta Career Center, both parents Erin and Caleb had initial misgivings.

“Vocational schools where we grew up seemed to be reserved for people who weren’t making it in ‘real’ school, so we weren’t completely sure how we felt about our son attending one,” Erin said.

But seeing how excited he was and learning more about the programme changed their minds. They now support his decision.

The Funks’ experience is a common thread among parents with children who are graduating high school seniors. As college enrollment rates in the US boomed, trade schools declined in the 1980s and 90s. Sometimes referred to as a vocational school, technical school or vocational college, these are post-secondary institutions that teach the technical skills related to specific occupations.

More have been enrolling in them these past few years – colleges also see similar increases – from 9.6 million students in 1999 to 16 million in 2014, but many still think they are doing so only because they do not meet the requirements for college.

A student uses an arch welder to merge two pipes together as he continues his education as a pipefitter at the Air Conditioning, Refrigeration and Pipefitting Education Center. Source: AFP/Joe Raedle

That is a misconception. The Funks’ son had a nearly perfect GPA, but a family friend’s initial reaction was to say “Oh, is he having problems at school?” according to Erin.

It can be a mistake, however well-intentioned, for parents to continue believing in this fallacy about vocational education. For one, the job market is demanding more specialised training that either doesn’t require a four-year degree or is not addressed in a conventional college.

Then, there’s the issue of time and cost. Trade schools take up two years of study before getting certified. A Bachelor’s degree requires at least four years. The former – which tend to cost significantly less – is a cheaper alternative in the US, a country grappling all-time high private and public tuition costs, as well as a student loan delinquencies at a “crisis” level.

Trade school graduates are also seeing the gap between their income and college grads narrow to a modest $11,180. National Center for Educational Statistics data show technical and trade school jobs offer a median annual salary of $35,720. A Deloitte report found some 80 percent of US manufacturers report they have a moderate or serious shortage of qualified applicants for skilled and highly-skilled production positions.

High school students could benefit from knowing this. Yet, most middle and high schools do not expose children to trade schools and other alternatives beyond college, leaving many students graduating without knowing what job options are available to them.

“Schools constantly need to expose students to a variety of programmes that ready them for college, the workplace and a successful community life,” said National School Boards Association (NSBA_ Executive Director and CEO Thomas J Gentzel.

“While apprenticeships have had a long history of developing trade skills for young people, they should now be viewed for their role in building 21st-century skills and narrowing the skilled labor gap in our ever-evolving technological world.”

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