Opinion: If you want a good job, learn a skill instead of going to college

By Peter Morici, May 14, 2018 6:01 a.m. ET

Source: marketwatch.com

Apprenticeships pay off for students who learn a trade quickly, cheaply

BNSF Railway BRK.B, -0.94% and Union Pacific UNP, +0.78%   are offering signing bonuses up to $25,000 for blue-collar recruits. These businesses are responding to shortages of diesel mechanics, electricians, conductors and many other trades. Similar shortages abound throughout the manufacturing and technology sectors and pose a major obstacle to keeping the economic recovery going.

Meanwhile, nearly 70% of high school graduates are enrolling in two- and four-year colleges, many recent baccalaureates are stuck working at Starbucks SBUX, -0.66%  and similar low-paying positions, and training for the blue-collar jobs that go begging usually doesn’t entail taking on huge debt.

The United States spends a much larger share of gross domestic product on higher education than do other countries but gets too little return on that investment. Too often four years of college adds little to students’ analytical abilities and businesses report many graduates are ill-prepared for entry-level managerial or other professional work.

No one should be surprised. Most universities are not very selective about who they admit and are pouring millions into amenities to occupy inattentive young adults. Too many students lack the academic abilities or inclination for the kind of abstract study that goes into calculus, literary criticism or economics.

Nowadays students spend about one third less time in class and studying than in the 1960s, and many would better profit from enrolling in a skills-based apprenticeship or a year or two of hands-on, focused training.

Parents and students shouldn’t be blamed too much, because employers give preference to college graduates in hiring for many occupations that won’t have required a degree a generation ago — for example, administrative assistants, insurance adjusters, makeup artists and the like. Employers are using diplomas as evidence that applicants can follow instructions, navigate a bureaucracy, and show up every day.

Finishing college pays 73% more than going to work after high school but that’s an average, which includes engineers, accountants and the like. Many land in low-paying dead-end jobs and saddled with a lifetime of debt when more practical alternatives are available.

The Department of Labor certifies apprenticeship programs. Usually completed in well less than four years, those generally offer about $15 an hour while students take courses and get hands on experience. On completion, 87% of students are in positions that pay an average of $60,000 a year — for college graduates the average is about $50,000 and subtracting the above-mentioned skills-based majors, the college average is a lot less.

About two-thirds of apprenticeships are in construction and manufacturing but President Donald Trump sees great opportunity in the service sector and has doubled the DOL budget for cultivating apprenticeships. Private actors like Wells Fargo WFC, -0.37%  , professional services firm Aon PLC AON, -0.10% and the National Restaurant Association are building out programs.

In the tech sector, Course Report connects students to some 95 coding schools — those annually matriculate about 23,000 graduates through programs that last about 14 weeks, cost about $11,000 and place graduates in jobs with starting salaries averaging nearly $71,000.

Through the online portal Coursera, Google GOOG, +0.06%  offers an eight- to 12-month IT support professional certificate program that connects graduates with employers like Bank of America BAC, +0.10%, Walmart WMT, +0.83% and GE Digital GE, -0.61%.

More formalized schools are emerging like Holberton School in San Francisco, which trains software and operations engineers in two years, and the fees are 17% of students’ internship and first three years post-graduation earnings.

These less-expensive alternatives are not available in enough industries and enough places, making the vast network of community colleges and state four-year colleges the default option for most high school counselors and parents. Many are too often located far from potential students in economically depressed areas hard hit by globalization.

The available seats in many programs fill up quickly, though the need is great and most programs are scalable.

Redirecting federal and state funding from higher education is sorely needed to encourage more of these innovative programs. Fewer students in college and more in skills-based training would make young workers more productive and the U.S. economy much more competitive.

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