Is Tech Training at Community College the Key to the Future?

Perhaps we shouldn't be pressing as many high school students to head straight for the university, since many high-tech manufacturing jobs are sitting empty. Community colleges are being transformed into the training step into these jobs, and more students need to be heading straight there. That's the message Kelsey Sheehy is hearing, as reported in US News & World Report.

Two years ago, President Obama was speaking of this need, and more recently, the head of the National Association of Manufacturers testified to Congress about the deep need for change to manufacturing jobs. Jay Timmons estimates that as many as 600,000 skilled labor positions are unfilled around the nation. In a time of deep recession, that's keenly important information for young people.

We're already seeing a trend in which young (or not so young) adults go back to school for additional job training, even if they already have four-year university degrees. As they pick up certificates or two-year degrees, they are carrying student debt from their first journey through higher education. Now editorialists, business leaders and the mayor of Chicago are suggesting that high school students should skip the debt-heavy traditional education and just get a two-year degree in a STEM field. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It includes electrical engineering, computer tech support, medical equipment, and industrial skills like specialized welding.

Timmons also suggested, in his House testimony, that manufacturers should create their own system of certification tests. He expressed support for the new America Works Act, which would help fund these manufacturing skills tests, among other things.

The city of Chicago is moving to create targeted programs for the industries based in its region. The programs will start in vocational tracks in high school. The difference is that they'll be more targeted than usual by teaming up with a company that might hire graduates:

Five high schools in the Chicago Public Schools district, including Corliss High School, Chicago Vocational Career Academy, and Lake View High School, began offering career-training tracks in September. The vocational programs are aligned with the needs of area businesses such as IBM, Motorola, and Verizon, which each partnered with a school to design alternative curricula, according to the CPS Website.

Chicago plans to coordinate these high school courses with the City Colleges of Chicago so that students can work toward two-year technical degrees at the same time.

US News points out that many people have the mistaken idea that shorter degrees train only for low-paying work. Not so:

Promoting two-year tech pathways can also open students' eyes to lucrative careers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). Electrical engineering technicians earn a median salary of about $56,000 with an associate degree, and the median pay for nuclear technicians is roughly $68,000 with an associate's, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When these jobs pay better than the median salary for a region, why, asks Timmons, do students continue to think of them as lower options than university? The wall between education and work has grown too high, and students simply do not know about these low-investment, high-paying tracks. The NAM hopes that skills certification will start to bring down this wall and make education more practical.

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