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Is a Bachelor’s Degree Really the Best Option?

Exploring the effect of cultural bias on the number of students becoming skilled workers.

tradeschoolarticle1
Image From: http://www.tradeskillse12.org.uk/

Dr. Matthew Crawford is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and has a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago (Crawford par. 1). From this description, the average American would probably assume that Dr. Crawford is a very smart and well-respected individual. Yet, if he chose to introduce himself as the owner and operator of a motorcycle shop, the perception would change. Instead of regarding him as traditionally intelligent, the general public would view him as someone who is good with their hands, and it is highly likely that his work will be viewed as more mundane or of lesser value. Especially in the United States, this pervasive bias that technical skills and blue collar jobs are not as esteemed as white collar jobs is rampant (Strauss par. 4).

As a result, teachers, parents, and school administrators alike all focus on the importance of at least four years of college education after high school to earn a Bachelor’s Degree, and it is a common viewpoint that the more degrees someone has the more successful they are (Schrader 1). This cultural perspective has resulted in a dramatic decrease of career and technical education (CTE)  programs in high schools and fewer students pursuing a career in a trade or other skilled work. In fact, only 1 in 5 students took more than three occupational education classes in 2017 according to the U.S. Department of Education (Gross and Marcus par. 24). The reduced number of people entering the field is on top of the baby boomers, the generation which encompasses the majority of trade workers, beginning to retire. By 2020, it is predicted that there will be 30 million technical skill jobs which pay more than $55,000 dollars a year left vacant, and because of the current lack of education, 74% of firms predict a lack of qualified workers according to the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) survey (Adecco 3). Due to the negative culture surrounding trade professions in the United States, the lack of skilled workers is continuously growing, and in order to fill these positions, there must be education surrounding the benefits of trade professions to all stakeholders, local and federal policy changes, and a new appreciation for vocational workers in society.

The first step in remediating the labor shortage lies in addressing the many misconceptions surrounding trade jobs through education to parents, teachers, and students (Gross and Marcus par. 42-43). This education must have a three-pronged approach: the fields skilled labors can work in, options for continued education after high school, and the pros and cons of a trade or skilled labor job. The majority of this education should occur during the high school years, so students can understand all of their options before committing to a four-year university. One of the most common approaches is CTE or Career and Technical Education programs (Brand, Browning, and Valent 1). In these programs, youth are pushed to explore the workings of different trades, take internships in their communities, and learn about the possibilities of careers ranging from manufacturing to health service.

High school CTE programs in the United States need to be revamped and offered at all public high schools. Not only is the future of technical skill jobs in the United States promising for those looking for a job, students enrolled in CTE programs are more likely to graduate from high school, attend a 2-year university, have a job, and earn higher wages than similar peers (Dougherty 26). Furthermore, a study conducted at a high school in Arkansas found that students who are engaged in these types of training programs saw better career outcomes than the typical American student (Barnum par. 15-17). Plus, CTE programs provide a great option for youth who prefer more hand on work, are kinesthetic learners, or are disinterested in other fields of study. As stated by Arizona’s State Education Superintendent, John Huppenthal, “Most students respond better to a three-dimensional learning process. …Some students can respond to two-dimensional learning, but most respond better when it’s hands on. ” (Klein 3) They were also found to help elevate impoverished populations with well-paying jobs and a solid education and skills base. This is all in addition to the relatively low cost of a two years Associate’s Degrees, skill certificates, and apprenticeships in comparison to 4 years Bachelor’s Degrees (Schrader 2).

However, a contradicting study was conducted throughout secondary schools in Germany where skilled training programs are more common. It found that, although students see a primary benefit, they can fall behind their peers with a general degree or fail to align with the changing industry (Barnum par. 10-11). This raises questions of the true value of a vocational education and the need to invest money into rebuilding America’s CTE programs if they may not be preparing students well. However, if someone is choosing to forge a path as a skilled worker, they should have received adequate education on the lifestyle that entails. Most of the time it provides a good salary with fulfilling work. Yet, like all fields, it can be susceptible to outside changes. Other critics argue that CTE tracks racial minorities and underperforming students into a system of internal segregation (Lindsay 3). Claiming that by placing an overrepresentation of these youth into the system, prevents them from achieving their full potential. Yet a study done on high school CTE programs in Arkansas found that the population of students taking CTE classes was representative (Lindsay 3). Despite this report, future classes must ensure they do not select students based on race or poor academic achievement. CTE is not for everyone and all students should be encouraged to pursue what they are passionate about. It should be presented as an alternative to traditional schooling and attempt to appeal to learners of all backgrounds.

To promote CTE classes, it is necessary that students, parents, and teachers are aware of their availability. However, as found by a recent national survey by Advance CTE, only 47% of parents and students had heard of the term Career and Technical Education, yet 89% said they would be interested after learning about it (Advance CTE 4). This shows the lack of knowledge on the topic which is hindering its ability to serve students. The solution is clear: outreach needs to be of the top priority. Parents say they would prefer to receive information via the school counselor (82%) and teachers (79%), and students requested a combination of electronic resources and advice from counselors and teachers (Advance CTE 5). At schools where CTE programs are present, the administration must take the initiative to properly educate the community it serves in the most effective way. Increased awareness comes with increased participation, which is essential to the survival and success of technical training in the United States. Over time, it may even mesh with general education to become the standard at high schools.

However, no education can occur without policy change and company partnerships. Currently, the establishment of CTE programs to fill the labor gap, prepare students for work, and help boost the economy is agreed upon by most democrats and republicans. Yet, the problem comes with securing adequate funding to support quality and modern programs. As expressed by the Arizona superintendent of schools, “It doesn’t have the prestige of a college-prep course, and it costs a lot more than two-dimensional education to do it right.” (Klein 3) Past legislation, including the Perkins Act, has provided money through federal funding to local governments to use as they wish to construct the ideal programs for their community (Brand, Browning, and Valent 3). Furthermore, states such as California and Massachusetts have invested a portion of the state budget in constructing viable CTE programs. As Governor Baker of Massachusetts said, the programs are simply too essential to improving the local workforce and economy to pass up (Schrader 3). However, state and federal budgets can be an unreliable source of income. Thus, many schools seek business partnerships to receive the funding they need. Many companies, desperate for workers, are willing to contribute to education centers, resources, and student education. For example, California Steel contributed $2 million to the construction of a new education center (Krupnick par. 30-34). If these policies and methods to access funding are carried out, CTE could expand and touch many people’s lives.

Although the two prior solutions are essential, none rival the need for an overall cultural change surrounding the way Americans view skilled laborers. Not all countries hold deep biases against skilled laborers. For instance, in Finland, 45% of students choose to go into a technical track versus an academic one (Strauss par. 2). In a similar way, students should not fear judgment when deciding to pursue a technical career nor view that field of work as inferior. The main source of disapproval stems from parents (Marcus and Gross par. 29). As Greg Christiansen, leader of the ironworkers training program, states, “The parents are definitely harder to convince because there is that stigma of the six-pack-totin’ ironworker.” The adults do not value that type of work and thus, try to discourage their children from pursuing it. It will take time, but eventually, parents will realize through experience that CTE education has rigor, opportunities for post-secondary education, and a multitude of pathways to pursue.

In conclusion, the key to filling the labor gap in the United States is by attracting a new generation of skilled workers who are well suited to the changing industries through education. Specifically, CTE classes will be instrumental in easing the cultural bias and stereotyping surrounding trade professions. Despite concerns over funding, acceptance, and internal segregation, through patience and care, these issues can be resolved and eliminated. Although the process will be arduous, it is possible over time to change society’s views, help millions, and support the economy. Eventually, CTE programs may even be viewed as a pathway of choice and esteem.

References:

  1. Adecco. “Skilled Trades in Demand (Infographic).” Adecco Staffing, USA, 6 May 2018, www.adeccousa.com/employers/resources/skilled-trades-in-demand/.
  2. Lindsay, Thomas K. “Three Common Criticisms of Career and Technical Education.” SeeThruEdu, 7 Sept. 2017,www.seethruedu.com/three-common-criticisms-of-career-and-technical-education/.
  3. Advance CTE. “The Value and Promise of Career Technical Education: Results from a National Survey of Parents and Students.” Career Technical Education | Advance CTE, 1 Apr. 2017, careertech.org/resource/value-and-promise-of-cte-results-from-a-national-survey
  4. Barnum, Matt. “The Long-Term Downside to a Bipartisan Education Initiative.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 6 June 2017, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/06/the-downside-to-career-and-technical-education/529161/.
  5. Brand, Betsy, et al. How Career and Technical Education Can Help Students Be College and Career Ready: A Primer. American Institute of Research, Mar. 2013.
  6. Crawford, Matthew B, et al. “’Soulcraft’ Honors An Honest Day’s Work.” NPR, NPR, 12 July 2009, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=106513632.
  7. Dougherty, Shaun M. “Career and Technical Education in High School: Does It Improve Student Outcomes?” The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 7 Apr. 2016, edexcellence.net/publications/career-and-technical-education-in-high-school-does-it-improve-student-outcomes.
  8. Gross, Ashley, and Jon Marcus. “High-Paying Trade Jobs Sit Empty, While High School Grads Line Up For University.” NPR, NPR, 25 Apr. 2018, www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/04/25/605092520/high-paying-trade-jobs-sit-empty-while-high-school-grads-line-up-for-university.
  9. Klein, Joe. “Learning That Works.” Time, Time Inc., 14 May 2012, content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2113794-3,00.html.
  10. Krupnick, Matt. “After Decades of Pushing Bachelor’s Degrees, U.S. Needs More Tradespeople.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 29 Aug. 2017, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/decades-pushing-bachelors-degrees-u-s-needs-tradespeople.
  11. Schrader, Alex. “When College Isn’t the Answer: Teaching Trade Skills.” Edudemic, 31 May 2016, http://www.edudemic.com/college-isnt-answer-teaching-trade-skills/.
  12. Strauss, Valeria. “Why We Need Vocational Education.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 5 June 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/why-we-need-vocational-education/2012/06/04/gJQA8jHbEV_blog.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.52e99f8b9de7.

My name is Ellie Hummel and I'm a junior at DuPont Manual High School in Louisville, Ky. I am a contributor for The Student Scientist. I love biology research and computer programming and hope to spread these passions to others through my writing. Over the course of the past three years, I have researched spinal cord injuries and axon growth. I also work for STEMY, a local non-profit dedicated to providing STEM resources to youth and lead my school's SNHS and HOSA chapters. In my free time, I play with my dog, Harry, and coach swim lessons.

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