Niagara Gazette

April 23, 2013

CONFER: Choosing a trade over a degree

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Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — A conversation that I regularly have with parents of high schoolers centers on the job market that their children will enter. The post-recession economy is tough enough for mom and dad, so they can’t help but wonder what might be the best path of study for their kids to pursue in college and, in turn, what sort of career should they prepare for to ensure a comfortable adulthood.

It’s to the point now that in those conversations I deemphasize the importance of college and suggest that parents inspire their teens to go after a career that is not predicated on a college degree. Economic and employment trends are showing both immediate and long-term needs for skilled tradesman. A teenager would be far better off by abandoning the college preparatory, general education tract in high school and, instead, entering BOCES and/or preparing for trade school after graduating.

It’s an outcome of supply and demand; there’s just too much competition for a finite number of job openings that require college degrees to warrant an investment in a diploma.

This wasn’t always the case. Just a generation or two ago, the college-educated were at a premium and, accordingly, could fetch a premium. Following World War II, only 5 percent of Americans could claim a college degree. In 1970, only 26 percent of the middle class workforce had received any education beyond the twelfth grade. Now, more than 3 in 10 have a degree, while 70 percent of young Americans enter college within 2 years of their high school graduation.

Due to this glut of educated workers, employers either can’t match candidates to jobs for which they became enlightened (over-qualification) or they can command lower wages paid for college graduates than one would have assumed just a decade ago or what one expects based on the size of the post-secondary investment (those are the outcomes of over-supply).

Not a day goes by that this isn’t proven across America.

Newspapers have been chock full of reports of college graduates having to accept what they perceive to be menial jobs since businesses in their career field aren’t hiring while many more have had to move back into their family’s homes to make ends meet, inspiring the title of the “Boomerang Generation”.

There is truth to be had in those anecdotal reports. The Center for College Affordability and Productivity says that roughly half of college graduates are working jobs that don’t require a degree. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows that 21 percent of college graduates up to the age of 34 live with their parents, an increase of 62 percent versus the findings of 2001’s survey.

To think, all of this misery for degrees that parents, teachers, guidance counselors and popular culture have painted as “must-haves”, which end up leaving the average college graduate with $27,000 in debt. Without the job opportunities to make good on the potential they have – or they alleged potential that they bought – they are saddled with the burdensome debt for the long haul, which is why total college debt in America exceeds $1 trillion. In comparison, total credit card debt in the US is “only” at $800 billion.

While the reality of the economy paints such a grim picture for young college-educated Americans, that same economy paints a rosy picture for their peers who instead opted for taxpayer funded training as machinists or paid a nominal fee to develop their skills as truck drivers.

More on this next week.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. He also writes for the New American at TheNewAmerican.com. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer and e-mail him at bobconfer@juno.com.