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As the shortage of skilled labor persists, the traditional four-year college degree is proving to be ineffective for some people. Tamar Jacoby of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "More Americans attend college today than ever before: this year, 42% of young people 18 to 24 years old.

The Rise of Vocational Degrees

America is Facing a Skilled Labor Crisis

Back in 2011, "Dirty Jobs" host (and English major) Mike Rowe spoke in front of the Senate Committee on Commerce about the importance of vocational careers and education for America's economic growth. "Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The skills gap is real, and it's getting wider," he told the Committee. Rowe explained how this gap is largely due to Americans' flawed perception of vocational careers and education over the past few decades:

In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We've elevated the importance of "higher education" to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled "alternative." Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as "vocational consolation prizes," best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of "shovel ready" jobs for a society that doesn't encourage people to pick up a shovel.

Similarly, in 2012 the Society of Manufacturing Engineers wrote that "[d]espite a consistently high United States unemployment rate for several years -- ranging between 8% and 10% from February 2009 through March 2012 -- as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs have gone unfilled because of a shortage of skilled workers." As these statistics and other recent studies have shown, skilled labor is in high demand, yet Americans' attitudes towards vocational education and careers may be deterring people from exploring vocational career paths.

Bachelor's Degrees: Losing Their Luster?

As the shortage of skilled labor persists, the traditional four-year college degree is proving to be ineffective for some people. Tamar Jacoby of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "More Americans attend college today than ever before: this year, 42% of young people 18 to 24 years old. But there's also mounting evidence that the college-for-all model isn't working. Nearly half of those who start a four year degree don't finish on time; more than two thirds of those who start community college fail to get a two-year degree on schedule."

Furthermore, according to The Washington Post, the Bureau of Labor Statistics discovered that approximately 17 million Americans with bachelor's degrees held jobs that they were overqualified for in 2010. A recent study by Accenture found that 41 percent of college graduates are working jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree. In this grim employment climate, some students and even working professionals are exploring the merits of vocational training.

The Vocational Advantage

Some studies suggest that vocational training and credentials can have concrete employment and salary benefits. In a research article for Georgetown University entitled "Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees," Anthony P. Carnevale, Stephen J. Rose and Andrew R. Hanson explained how vocational certificate holders earn on average 20 percent more than their peers who only hold a high school diploma. Furthermore, certificate holders who work in their field of study earn only four percent less than the average associate degree holder.

Even more compelling are Carnevale et. al's findings that, within particular fields, vocational certificates may yield earnings that are higher than that of many associate degree and bachelor's degree holders. For example, men who have earned a vocational certificate in computer and information services and work in this field earn an average of $72,498 per year, more than the salaries of 72 percent of men who have earned associate degrees, and 54 percent of men with bachelor's degrees. Women with certificates in computer and information services and who work in this field earn $56,664 per year, more than 75 percent of women with an associate degree and 64 percent of women with a bachelor's degree.

The Caveats

Despite the field-specific salary advantages of vocational training in certain fields, some caveats do exist. For example, the study found that only 44 percent of certificate holders actually work in their field of training. Certificate holders who work outside of their field of study only earn 1 percent more than a worker with a high school diploma. Furthermore, individuals with bachelor's degrees still earn more on average than either certificate or associate degree holders -- $54,300 versus $34,946 and $42,088, respectively.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research also found that, while vocational degrees and certificates yield a higher employment rate for youth at the beginning of their careers, the employment benefits taper off over time, as individuals who have only received vocational training in one narrow field are less able to weather fluctuations or large scale shifts in the U.S.'s labor market and economy.

Should You Pursue a Vocational Degree or Certificate?

The findings of the NBER suggest that employment-savvy individuals would do well to strike a balance between focused skills and a breadth of knowledge. According to Carnevale et. al's study, some people have struck that balance by earning both a bachelor's degree and a vocational certificate, or by enrolling in vocational training as they work part time or full time. Indeed, Carnevale et. al found that a third of vocational certificates are earned by individuals who are over the age of 30, and that 34 percent of certificate holders also have college degrees.

Nevertheless, vocational certificates primarily serve as a stepping-stone towards more education and credentials. Carnevale et. al found that 23 percent of certificate holders earned their certificate immediately after high school, while 21 percent earned their vocational credential between the ages 20 and 22 and 22 percent earned certificates between ages 23 and 29. Thus, two thirds of the people with a vocational certificate earned this credential shortly after high school or during the early stages of their career.

As mentioned previously, vocational certificates do generally yield an earnings premium, typically when one works in one's field of study. In today's climate of high unemployment and rampant student debt, more people are flocking to vocational education than in previous years. Carnevale et. al noted that the number of vocational certificates in America has increased by over 800 percent over the past three decades -- from a mere 2 percent in 1984 to 12 percent in 2009. Carnevale, Rose and Hanson cited the findings of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) that 24 percent of workers between the ages of 23 and 65 report that they have attended a vocational, trade, technical or business program after high school.

The decision of whether to join the growing ranks of vocational trainees depends on your desired career path and current field of employment. Below are some tips for determining whether a vocational certificate may be right for you:

  • Ask yourself, "What skills am I missing, and which ones do I need to get where I want to go professionally?" Write out a list and match these skills with the course descriptions of several certificate programs.
  • Research the different fields of vocational training, and whether such training actually translates into appreciable employment and salary gains. Carnevale et. al discovered that people with healthcare and cosmetology certifications earned less than those who earned certifications in computer and information services, aviation, and electronics.
  • Speak with people in your current and desired fields of work, and then ask yourself, "What certifications do my peers in the industry have, and have these credentials helped them in their career?"
  • And finally, if you do decide to enroll in a vocational certification program, keep in mind that a certificate does not guarantee employment or a raise. Employers look at the whole package of your skills set, past employment performance and academic preparation. Prepare your qualifications so that they have a nice balance between depth and breadth.

Sources:

"Are vocational degrees a better path to employment? In the short run," washingtonpost.com, 5 December 2011, Suzy Khimm, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/post/are-vocational-degrees-a-better-path-to-employment-in-the-short-run/2011/12/05/gIQAifaDWO_blog.html

"Certificates: Gateway to Employment and College Degrees," cew.georgetown.edu, June 2012, Anthony P. Carnevale, Stephen J. Rose, and Andrew R. Hanson, http://www9.georgetown.edu/grad/gppi/hpi/cew/pdfs/Certificates.FullReport.061812.pdf

"Mike Rowe's Testimony Before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation," dsc.discovery.com, 11 May 2011, Mike Rowe, http://dsc.discovery.com/tv-shows/dirty-jobs/lists/mike-rowe-senate-testimony.htm

"Workforce Imperative: A Manufacturing Education Strategy," sme.org, September 2012, http://www.sme.org/workforceimperative/