The country’s younger millennials, those on the brink of post-secondary education, are at an important crossroads. They must decide if they are willing to stare down massive college debt while trying to obtain a four-year college degree that comes with fewer and fewer job guarantees, or whether they want to build a career using an alternative to college. The average 2013 college graduate owes $30,000.
Some see the skilled trades as the answer to this question because it allows young workers to earn while they learn. With the “baby boomer” generation retiring en masse, the opportunities available to young tradesmen and women are piling up.
A recent NPR piece, which was part of their New Boom series on millennials, takes a look at the life of Haley Hughes. The 18-year-old graduated high school last summer and was accepted by every college she applied too (thanks to years of making the honor roll). Yet, she didn’t feel that it was the proper career path for her. As she told NPR, “I wasn’t excited about it really, I guess.”
Hughes entered an apprenticeship through New England utility company NStar. NPR’s Chris Arnold caught up with Hughes to talk to her about her decision not to take the college route:
“The student loans would be ridiculous,” Hughes says during a break from class. “The schools I was looking at … were like $40,000 a year.” In the long run she thought that was just too much.
By comparison, NStar is partnering with nearby Bunker Hill Community College to offer students the opportunity to earn a two-year associate degree. Hughes has some scholarships and NStar pays some of the cost, so for Hughes, the price tag works out to about $1,200 a semester. Hughes says she’s been paying that herself, and so she expects to graduate with no debt.
Hughes is also getting a lot of on-the-job training and taking a wide range of courses at the community college: English, math, a computer science course and even a psychology group dynamics class. Then there are the classes directly related to power utility work: DC theory, AC theory, physics, engineering and business etiquette. Not bad for $1,200 a semester.
Anthony Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, spoke to NPR about the real need for a younger generation of workers to enter the trades and the opportunities available to those who do:
“The baby-boom workers are retiring and leaving lots of openings for millennials,” Carnevale says. He says there are 600,000 jobs for electricians in the country today, and about half of those will open up over the next decade.
Carnevale explained how changes in the education system created the current scenario in which the trades are working hard to seek out young workers while colleges are overfilling with young students who don’t necessarily have a passionate desire to be there.
“We made a mistake,” Carnevale says. “Back in 1983, there was the ‘Nation at Risk’ report in which, quite rightly, we all were appalled at the quality of education in America.”
After that, he says, most high schools focused on academics and getting students ready for college. For a lot of parents, they wanted their kids to have a four-year degree. But Carnevale says, in the process “we basically obliterated the modernization of the old vocational education programs and they’ve been set aside.”
Left out of the NPR article is the role unions play in the apprenticeship system. From pre-apprenticeship programs that reach out to introduce the trades to young workers from different backgrounds, to programs that partner with community colleges and large employers, unions continue to push the apprenticeship model that has made them strong for decades.
North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) claim to be the largest training provider in the construction industry. Over 70 percent of registered construction apprenticeship programs are sponsored by a union. At the 2014 NABTU legislative conference, U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez praised the trades commitment to the apprenticeship system, saying:
“Absolutely essential to the opportunity agenda is ensuring that our people have the skills to succeed in 21st century jobs. Perhaps no training program or strategy does that as effectively as apprenticeships… and no one knows apprenticeships like the building trades. You’ve been doing it for over 60 years, developing world-class curriculum, utilizing cutting-edge technology, never compromising on quality, leveraging hundreds of millions of dollars of private sector dollars a year to build state-of-the-art, industry-driven programs.”
Read a host of apprenticeship-related articles in the We Party Patriots archives.