In a new report, the Washington State Auditor found that good jobs in the skilled trades are going begging because students are being almost universally steered to bachelor's degrees.
Among other things, the Washington auditor recommended that career guidance — including choices that require less than four years in college — start as early as the seventh grade.
"There is an emphasis on the four-year university track" in high schools, said Chris Cortines, who co-authored the report. Yet, nationwide, three out of 10 high school grads who go to four-year public universities haven't earned degrees within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. At four-year private colleges, that number is more than 1 in 5.
"Being more aware of other types of options may be exactly what they need," Cortines said. In spite of a perception "that college is the sole path for everybody," he said, "when you look at the types of wages that apprenticeships and other career areas pay and the fact that you do not pay four years of tuition and you're paid while you learn, these other paths really need some additional consideration."
And it's not just in Washington state.
Seventy-percent of construction companies nationwide are having trouble finding qualified workers, according to the Associated General Contractors of America; in Washington, the proportion is 80 percent.
There are already more trade jobs like carpentry, electrical, plumbing, sheet-metal work and pipe-fitting than Washingtonians to fill them, the state auditor reports. Many pay more than the state's average annual wage of $54,000.
Construction, along with health care and personal care, will account for one-third of all new jobs through 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There will also be a need for new plumbers and new electricians. And, as politicians debate a massive overhaul of the nation's roads, bridges and airports, the U.S. Department of Education reports that there will be 68 percent more job openings in infrastructure-related fields in the next five years than there are people training to fill them.
"The economy is definitely pushing this issue to the forefront," said Amy Morrison Goings, president of the Lake Washington Institute of Technology, which educates students in these fields. "There isn't a day that goes by that a business doesn't contact the college and ask the faculty who's ready to go to work."
In all, some 30 million jobs in the United States that pay an average of $55,000 per year don't require bachelor's degrees, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.
Yet the march to bachelor's degrees continues. And while people who get them are more likely to be employed and make more money than those who don't, that premium appears to be softening; their median earnings were lower in 2015, when adjusted for inflation, than in 2010.
"There's that perception of the bachelor's degree being the American dream, the best bang for your buck," said Kate Blosveren Kreamer, deputy executive director of Advance CTE, an association of state officials who work in career and technical education. "The challenge is that in many cases it's become the fallback. People are going to college without a plan, without a career in mind, because the mindset in high school is just, 'Go to college.' "
Kids are lining up to get bachelor's degrees even as the price of secondary education goes up and the likelihood of work for the associated education dwindles. Why?
Well, my sourpuss theory for a weekend is to say that there's a myth that goes along with promotion of higher education, a myth that if you go and get the education the income will come to you if you deserve it. Leftists would seem increasingy to call this myth the promise of neoliberalism. Maybe people with a self-identified libertarian bent might call this John Gal, or how people could say they are lie John Galt. Mix in a sea of popular culture informed by Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey with what others call morally therapeutic deism and the recipe seems to be for being that one who "changes everything". But we can't all be that, obviously. Still less can we imagine against the flow of human history that Lord Acton was entirely wrong to warn that great men are rarely ever good men. Yes, power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely but plenty of great men (and a few great women, too, perhaps) imagine that they were great enough to withstand the slings and arrows of a little power.
In other words, Americans have been trained at every level of popular culture to imagine and to hope that they could be the exeption, whatever the rule may be. To borrow a duality proposed over at ribbon farm, lots of people want to be bards when the income is in being a chimneysweep.