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Businesses and students are clamoring for better vocational training, but budget cuts and federal mandates prompt vocational cutbacks.

How Minnesota is Addressing Its Vocational Education Shortage

There is no question that it often pays to have a college education. According to the Pew Research Center, college graduates aged 25 to 32 who have full-time jobs earn about $17,500 more annually than workers with only a high school degree.

But not all college degrees return such nice dividends. As President Obama noted recently, some students may even stand to earn more money by learning a trade than by earning an art history degree. And with the cost of college skyrocketing and creating student loan debts that take decades to pay off, it seems even more important for students to have the option of learning a trade if they can't afford years of school.

Vocational demand on the rise

Many of those students are clamoring for more opportunities to learn. According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the number of high school students enrolling in Minnesota trade and Minnesota vocational classes is climbing at an historic rate. Auto repair classes can attract up to 60 students in some Minnesota vocational programs, and many businesses in manufacturing and other technical areas frequently complain about not being able to find qualified applicants.

The irony is that in recent years, options for high school students who want to enter Minnesota trade or Minnesota vocational programs to learn more about technical trades -- from carpentry and auto repair to culinary arts and cosmetology -- are declining. For example, the number of career and technical centers in the state has declined from 70 in the 1970s to just five today. From 2008 to 2011, the number of career and technical classes dropped by more than 50 percent, falling from about 2,750 to 1,200.

In Minnesota and other states, the problem more often than not is funding. Career and technical education programs are expensive. A single automotive diagnostic kit -- needed to perform work on newer, computer-operated vehicles -- can cost more than $30,000, for example. What's more, school districts in Minnesota and other states have been forced to cut back on vocational classes in order to ensure compliance with core-education demands placed on them by such programs as the federal No Child Left Behind law. When being forced to choose between math and mechanics, the schools are forced to back math -- as well as reading and writing classes.

Ways to overcome the problem

Businesses and post-secondary vocational schools have responded with innovative programs to expose high school students to various trades and to better train tomorrow's technical workers. For example:

  • Nearly 30 community colleges in Minnesota have teamed up with surrounding school districts to collaborate on career and technical education classes.
  • Manufacturers are increasingly starting apprenticeship programs to train workers while paying them as employees. Buhler, a Plymouth, Minn., grain processing equipment manufacturer, launched just such a program after experiencing ongoing problems finding skilled workers. Six apprentice employees now spend half their time working on the shop floor and the rest of their time in the classroom. The program is designed to last three years, and could become a model for similar programs.
  • Some vocational schools are negotiating with employers on lower tuition rates to make apprenticeship programs more attractive to them.

In California, state leaders have created a one-time $250 million fund to help boost Partnership Academies, which combine academics with career technical training in a program that works with teachers, businesses and post-secondary schools. Students stay together for three years of high school, taking classes from a team of teachers focused on a career theme. Businesses offer internships. The graduation rate is 95 percent, and three out of five graduates goes on to community college while 28 percent go on to a 4-year college.

The value of certification

These trends all point to the increasing value of vocational training schools, where short-term degree programs can quickly lead to a good-paying job. Certificate programs that focus study on a specific field, such as auto mechanics, drafting or technology, can often be as lucrative or pay more than jobs requiring a bachelor's degree, according to a 2012 study by Georgetown University. According to that study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce:

  • Men who earn a certificate from a community or technical college earn more than 40 percent of those who get an associate degree and more than 24 percent of those men who get a bachelor's degree.
  • Woman who earn a certificate earn more than 34 percent of the women with associate's degree and more than 24 percent of women with bachelor's degrees.

For students who are looking for a healthy career path but don't want to attend a traditional four-year school, a vocational or technical program may be the answer. Some entities are starting to realize the value of a trade education, and it's only a matter of time before more states get on board.

Sources:

"Demand there, but tech classes cut," Star Tribune, Daarel Burnette II, January 3, 2012, http://www.startribune.com/local/east/136631848.html

"Is college worth it?," The Economist, April 5, 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21600131-too-many-degrees-are-waste-money-return-higher-education-would-be-much-better

"Minn. Lawmakers Consider Solution for College Debt and Unemployment," KSTP, Nick Winkler, January 1, 2014, http://kstp.com/news/stories/S3266371.shtml?cat=1

"Study examines vocational certificates' big rewards," USA Today, Mary Beth Marklein, June 5, 2012, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/story/2012-06-06/vocational-education-degrees-pay/55410846/1

Vocational & Technical Schools by State

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