Earn-and-learn training programs offer students pathways to debt-free education 

We live in a post-vocational education world. The problem? That same world still needs skilled trades workers. In fact, in a 2015 report on employment and occupations in skilled trades released by the state of Michigan, researchers estimate that by 2022 skilled trades jobs will grow by almost 14 percent — about 6,600 jobs — a number well above the 8.7 percent growth rate expected for jobs in the state overall.

According to reports, the gap between the number of skilled trades workers and jobs will continue to grow as baby boomers — who hold the majority of skilled trades jobs in both Michigan and the country — retire. And the rate at which workers are graduating from the very limited vocational education programs available simply cannot support the ever-growing need.

How did we get here?

In the 1950s, vocational education had long been a staple in high school curriculums, but a new system began to separate students into two tracks: One was bound for college, the other would enter into a skilled trade. It sounded like a good idea; college isn't for everyone and neither is, say, electrical work. But parents and teachers soon realized the system was nothing more than a social caste that put wealthy, white kids on track for college and poor, minority students into trades.

Rather than create a fair system, schools simply did away with the vocational track and students began taking shop classes as elective courses rather than a concerted path of study. Things worsened during the 2008 economic downturn, when expensive shops became more and more difficult to financially sustain, and many shuttered.

Detroit Public Schools is a perfect example of this phenomenon. In 2001, hundreds of DPS students were enrolled in a vocational education program — one that set them on a path to enter a career (debt-free nonetheless) upon receiving their high school diploma. In a 2014 report, MLive detailed the troubled school system's efforts to put "vo-tech" back on track and to date, a smattering of partnerships have created successful training programs that offer students the hands-on experience employers are desperate for.

Why skilled trades?

In 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that while 68 percent of high school graduates go to college, 40 percent of them won't graduate. Meaning, almost half of college-bound kids will end up in debt, with nothing to show for it. Last week, Forbes reported in 2017 the average graduate leaves college $37,172 in debt.

Meanwhile, skilled trades apprenticeships offer "earn-and-learn" opportunities that put high school grads in a position to quickly attain full-time work with competitive pay.

In Michigan's 2015 skilled trades job report, the Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiative surmised that, "the skilled trades provide an increasing alternative to spending a lengthy period of time earning a college degree."

The report also shows that skilled trade workers have a wage range of $12 to $33 with a median hourly income of $21, which is competitive pay for a job that comes with little to no student loan debt.

How do we close the gap?

"Eleven years ago, the tone from the top down was all about college," says Lee Graham, executive director of Operating Engineers 324.

Operating Engineers 324 and a host of other local organizations have banded together to begin creating new pathways into skilled trades for high school students who're looking to break into the field.

What started as a collection of career fairs to introduce kids to new opportunities eventually evolved into a hands-on program that introduces students to equipment and general duties.

"We thought, 'We have to do something more than just have these career fairs," Graham says. "We have to give these kids a greater path and access to these jobs."

So they created the high school-level Workforce of the Future & Career Readiness Coalition, and the program graduated its first class of high school juniors and seniors last week.

The 16-week program introduced DPS students to a variety of new skills and tools they can use in careers in growing trades. According to Graham, the program also helps them connect with parents, which is key to the recruitment process. Many don't know skilled trades are a viable option.

"Parents wonder how they haven't known about this [path]," Graham says. "They need to be educated about these jobs as well. When we talk to parents, we tell them these earn-as-you-learn programs allow students to come out debt-free."

Graham says the trades are quickly losing their stigma as dirty, seasonal work as more and more technologies are incorporated into the field. These days robotics, simulators, and other high-tech equipment are used on a day-to-day basis in these careers.

There are still opportunities for high school graduates who missed out on vocational education. Access for All is a program that connects Detroit residents who are 18 and older with training, employment opportunities, and wraparound services. The nine-week program gives Detroiters a pathway into an apprenticeship or employment in a trade.

Going Pro is another Michigan campaign designed to help encourage locals to go into skilled trades. The site (mitalent.org/skilledtrades) showcases job and employment opportunities in the field.

While entering, or reentering, into college can be a daunting task for responsibility-ridden adults, skilled trades have a lower barrier for entry — and the opportunities to make money faster.

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