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A recent long-form article in The Wall Street Journal highlighted the shift for recent grads away from four-year degrees and towards technical school certifications and degrees; apparently it's cool again to work with tools. The cost of post-secondary education at America's colleges and unversities, paired with the lucrative and accessible jobs available right out of high school, is causing students (and their frequently-skeptical parents) to reconsider their post-graduation plans.

According to the article, "Enrollment in vocational training programs is surging as overall enrollment in community colleges and four-year institutions has fallen. The number of students enrolled in vocational-focused community colleges rose 16% last year to its highest level since the National Student Clearinghouse began tracking such data in 2018. The ranks of students studying construction trades rose 23% during that time, while those in programs covering HVAC and vehicle maintenance and repair increased 7%." 

A student explores a Brake Pad Assembly on the Be Pro Be Proud SC Mobile Workshop.

Although many parents grew up believing that the best path to career success was the one that left students holding a diploma signifying (at the very least) a bachelor's degree, many are now seeing the reality of the numbers:  payroll services provider ADP reported that the median pay for new construction hires rose 5.1% to $48,089 last year, versus professional services new hires commanding an average of just $39,520, up 2.7% from 2022. Combine these figures with the cost of that degree and the opportunity cost of four years of unrealized wages, and you have a very real debt hole to climb out of before comfortable living can begin.

The WSJ article also highlighted the shortage of skilled tradespeople that has been building for many years now -- due in large part to the retirement of vast numbers of older workers -- and the fact that this shortage has been the cause of the increasing costs for new construction, repairs, and renovations year over year. Fortunately, it seems the tide is turning.  "Demand for trade apprenticeships, which lets students combine work experience with a course of study often paid for by employers, has boomed lately," according to the WSJ article.

A student practices welding on a simulator on the Be Pro Be Proud SC Mobile Workshop.

The WSJ article also referenced a 2023 survey of 1000 U.S. students, 18 to 20 years old, conducted by software company Jobber; among the findings are telling stats that provide some hope for the future of the trades in general. In sum, 75% said they would be interested in vocational schools offering paid, on-the-job training and two-thirds expressed interest in starting a business at some point; interestingly, thanks to the rise of AI, 56% also believe that blue-collar jobs will have more job security over time than white-collar jobs. Hence, the heightened interest in technical training over full-blown four-year degrees.

Additionally, the WSJ article continues, "[t]he number of carpenters in the U.S. grew over the past decade, while their median age fell from 42.2 to 40.9. The same was true for electricians, whose ranks grew by 229,000 workers, even as their median age fell by 2.9 years, according to federal data. Other skilled trade occupations, such as plumbing and HVAC workers, have also trended younger." If this trend persists, it bodes well for the American infrastructure, as well as for American's pocketbooks. 

It seems that, thanks to efforts nationwide of voices like Be Pro Be Proud, today's students -- and their parents -- are experiencing a shift in the perception of what it means to work as a tradesperson. The image of a grease-covered worker in overalls is making way for the skilled professional working with cool, high-tech tools and exploring entrepreneurial opportunities, all while getting paid to learn modern methods and leaving the soul-crushing school debt out of the equation.

See the original article by subscribing to The Wall Street Journal HERE.