The State of American Trade Schools

This is a golden time for postsecondary trade and tech schools. Not just because they’re becoming more profitable than ever. But because, at least according to some, they’re finally shaking off the stigma that has dogged their students, instructors, and administrators for so long. Over the past year, media from The Wall Street Journal to PBS have hailed technology schools and programs as harbingers of a new economy and reformers of a postsecondary education system that’s become over-priced, over-valued, and often irrelevant.

Statistics are a big part of the story. Between 1988 and 2018, the cost of a four-year college degree increased by 213 percent at public schools and 129 percent at private schools. Over the same period, wages for most Americans remained stagnant. Meanwhile, unemployment rates among young college graduates have grown from 4.3 percent in 2000 to 5.6 percent in 2017. Young male college graduates have been particularly hard hit. Their unemployment rate spiked from 4.1 percent in 2000 to 7.1 percent in 2017. At the same time, a scarcity of skilled workers has led to a nationwide labor shortage that’s resulted in increased wages for a number of blue-collar occupations. The lesson for many is obvious.

“We are lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back to train them for jobs that no longer exist,” says Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe, summing up a widespread viewpoint for Fox News.

“There is a revolution going on that covers both secondary and postsecondary education.”

Into this breach have stepped trade and tech schools with a seductive promise: instead of spending four years and amassing life-crushing debt chasing a four-year degree with softening value, spend less money and time—typically one or two years, but as little as nine weeks, for a coding boot camp—training for a specific job in an industry that pays well and has a massive need for workers.

It’s a reductive return-on-investment approach to postsecondary education that has transfixed administrators and policy makers at all levels.

“There is a revolution going on that covers both secondary and postsecondary education and it has a very strong career orientation,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “‘Career pathway’ is the phrase of the moment.”

Carnevale calls the push–pull between general and career-specific curriculum the “core tension in American education.” Careerists have lately been winning the fight thanks in large part to the fevered demands of industry. Private enterprise has lately become so frustrated with the inability of America’s school systems to turn out qualified workers—an instructor I met at one tech school told me many high school grads literally can’t read a tape measure—that many companies/organizations have begun taking education into their own hands.

In 2017, the Carolinas Association of General Contractors rolled out its Build Your Career (BYC) program, which sends “construction industry leaders out into the school system to educate students, educators, and parents about what a terrific career the construction industry offers.” Part of its pitch is welders who make $90,000 a year and crane operators who pull in $60,000. BYC in part follows Denver Public Schools’ CareerConnect Apprenticeship Program, which has emerged as a national model by placing high school students in three-year, hands-on apprenticeships with companies in fields including IT and advanced manufacturing.

“It’s just hard to find qualified people like pipe layers and welders,” says Kris Hannah, recruiting manager for State Utility Contractors in Monroe, North Carolina. The utility company works primarily with municipalities in the Southeast installing water and sewer lines and water treatment plants. Part of Hannah’s job is to attract young workers to the trade. One way he does this is with “equipment rodeos” that allow high schoolers to operate excavators, bulldozers, and other heavy equipment.

“Charlotte [water utility’s] five-year budget for 2019 to 2023 is $1.4 billion,” says Hannah. “There’s plenty of work coming out for the next five to 10 years. The hard part is finding skilled people to do it.”

Social pressure and the economic promise of a four-year university degree remain strong, especially among graduating high school students. Many trade schools nevertheless seem to be seeing an increase in the types of students who a decade ago might never have considered them a viable option.

Trade and Tech School Renaissance


Zachary McKee, electrical technologies student at Harrisburg Area Community College.

Mohamed Sadek

Franco Rodriguez recalls the precise moment he decided to leave college for a tech school.

“I was sitting in a biology class that had a 45 percent pass rate I was taking for a required science credit,” the now-22-year-old says. “I was thinking, ‘This is great information I’m getting, but learning everything about a frog’s life cycle is not going to advance what I want to do.’ I like hands-on work. I like taking apart valves and figuring out how they work.”

Rodriguez grew up in central Florida and graduated from high school in 2014. At the time he was examining frogs he was in his sophomore year at Lake-Sumter State College in Clermont, Florida. When he heard about a new Instrumentation and Industrial Automation Technology program at a school on the other side of the country with a track record of placing graduates in high-paying careers he decided to take what he calls “a huge leap.”

In 2019, Rodriguez will graduate from the two-year Instrumentation program at Perry Technical Institute in Yakima, Washington, with an arsenal of skills covering solid-state electronics, integrated circuits, motor drives, emissions containment, operating systems, safety and security, robotics and other skills required by industries in which programmable logic controllers dominate automated systems.

“Not a lot of people know about instrumentation as a career, but it’s an enormous field,” Rodriguez says. He’s eyeing a job in the petroleum industry, but his options seem limitless.

“Everything we do here is about career placement,” says Tony Nirk, who heads the Instrumentation program. “We have Fortune companies flying in from New York, California, Texas, you name it, to interview our graduating students. In one class we had students placed in jobs from Hawaii to New York.”

A sign in each classroom reads: “Treat every day in the classroom as if it is the world of work.”

No matter from which direction you approach, you have to pass through miles of sparsely populated, semi-arid farmland to reach Yakima in Central Washington. Renowned among brewers, the Yakima Valley produces more hops than any other agricultural region in the world. It’s one of the few places in Washington state where U.S. flags are displayed more prominently (barely) than the Seattle Seahawks’ ubiquitous 12th Man banners.

Established in 1939 and now housed in nine buildings on a 35-acre campus, the nonprofit Perry Tech is one of the nation’s brightest trade school success stories. Over the past 12 years, the school has doubled its enrollment (777 full-time students in 2019) and added seven new programs. These include a new plumbing program in 2018 and an electrical technology program that typically has a year-plus wait list. The school touts a 94 percent job placement record. It was ranked number one in the nation in income mobility and median student income by age 34 ($52,200) in a 2017 study by a team from Harvard, UC–Berkeley, and Brown universities. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, Perry Tech grads now make $54,300 annually, far better than the $46,500 earned by graduates of nearby Central Washington University.

It’s Perry Tech’s expanding profile, however, that school president Christine Coté cites as its most indicative measure of progress.

“When I arrived here in 1997, you’d ask a local counselor about options after high school and they’d list University of Washington, Washington State, Central Washington, Gonzaga,” says Coté. “Perry wasn’t even in the reference manuals of schools right down the street 15 years ago.”

Each Perry Tech program is overseen by an advisory board of nationwide industry professionals that often act as a catalyst for new classes and programs. The school’s construction program was created in 2016 as the direct result of the effort to build the $8 million Plath Hall to house the new Instrumentation program. At its opening ceremony, the local contractor who built it told Coté about his difficulty finding qualified help.

“He said, ‘We have 12 positions open we can’t fill,’” Coté recalls. “‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could get those workers from Perry?’ That was August 2015. A year later we started our first construction class.”

The attitude and curriculum at Perry is all business. A sign in each classroom reads: “Treat every day in the classroom as if it is the world of work.” Unlike most university undergrads, students punch in and punch out; tardiness is punished; attendance is mandatory.

“The one big pattern you see is the abandonment of the liberal arts in favor of vocational majors.”

“The reason we do that is industry keeps saying, ‘We can’t get people to show up on time,’” says Perry Tech associate dean Jason Lamiquiz.

Revolution or Reaction?

Young Apprentices Begin Working At Cammell Laird Shipyard

Cammell Laird apprentice Bryn Jones, aged 19, works on a grinding machine at the company’s shipyard where he is learning traditional ship building skills on December 5, 2008, in Birkenhead, Merseyside, England.

Christopher FurlongGetty Images

As trade schools’ bottom-line ethic is being applauded, many four-year institutions are, perhaps not coincidentally, struggling with an economic and identity crisis. A January 2019 New York Times story reported on financial struggles leading to the shuttering of liberal arts degree programs at small colleges across the country. The Wall Street Journal noted the conversation on postsecondary education reform “is being fueled by questions about the declining value of a college degree as well as the rising cost of tuition and student debt.”

Some four-year schools are partly seeking to remake themselves in the jobs-jobs-job image promoted by industry. Though still comparatively meager in terms of overall student numbers, between spring 2016 and spring 2017 construction trades marked the largest percentage enrollment increase (26.4 percent) of all programs at four-year institutions. This is likely because, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction, health care, and personal care will account for a third of all new jobs through 2022.

“At federal and state levels it is very clear the policy community, the people who have some kind of role in paying for the stuff, are increasingly skeptical of higher education in terms of its abstract benefits,” says Barmak Nassirian, director of federal policy with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “If there is one big transformational pattern you see even within the traditional baccalaureate space it is the abandonment of the liberal arts in favor of much more vocationally identifiable majors.”

So what’s with all the college bashing? A lot of it appears to be a selective review of statistics.

The most virulent critic of traditional baccalaureate education is a George Mason University economics professor named Bryan Caplan. His 2018 book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, elucidates every complaint about wasting time on meaningless subjects that you and your disgruntled high school buddies ever had. By turns it reads like a faculty-room rant from a beleaguered instructor who just can’t get these dim-bulb kids interested in anything, then assumes the tincture of a suicide note scrawled by any self-loathing Office Space schlub who’s fretted about the paucity of manly skills his own regrettable career choice has inflicted upon him.

It also wields statistics like a splitting maul. In 2008–09, over 94,000 students earned bachelor’s degrees in psychology, yet there were only 174,000 practicing psychologists in the entire country. History majors fare the worst. In 2008–09 alone, more than 34,000 history degrees were awarded—yet there were only 3,500 working historians in the entire country.

In Caplan’s view, the primary value of all those Russian lit, macro-economics, and entry-level geology credits is to signal employers that the graduate is an obedient prole willing to “conform to the folkways of today’s workplace.”

This would all be unbearably bleak for the future of bachelor degrees if not for the fact that Caplan’s main argument, along with every other report on the demise of the four-year university degree, is undercut by a whole other set of statistics. These numbers emphatically show that, even if for reasons not perfectly understood, more schooling, especially in the service of four-year degrees, strongly equates to higher overall career earnings.

According to the College Scorecard, university graduates on average earn $1 million more over their lifetimes than high school graduates. In his book Caplan concedes over and over that a four-year degree is a significantly better economic bet than a two-year tech, trade, or community college degree. Even while protesting that “most of what schools teach has no value in the labor market,” he admits that “enduring another year of school will, on average, get you a raise for the rest of your career. What kind of raise? A standard figure is about 10 percent. … education still pays. Even fine arts degrees.”

“There is a very clear and decisive advantage focusing on the dollars-and-cents earning potential, and it remains very true the baccalaureate degree in particular is a major wage enhancer,” says Nassirian.

Fraud remains the biggest problem with trade, technology, and certificate schools.

He lists a trove of benefits four-year-degree holders confer on themselves and society at large: college grads tend to be happier, enjoy better health, smoke less, vote more, display superior civic engagement, donate more to charities, and are less likely be obese or incarcerated. A 2016 Brookings Institution study found that each additional year of college equates to a longer life.

So what’s with all the college bashing? A lot of it appears to be a selective review of statistics. Search recent media coverage of trade school trends and you’d think nationwide enrollment was at an all-time high. In fact, overall trade and tech school enrollment has declined each year since 2011. Then again, so has enrollment at four-year universities.

Counter-intuitively, declining enrollment doesn’t necessarily indicate academic demise. Part of it is demographics—high school class sizes have been shrinking. Part of it is migration—Americans are still moving from rural areas to cities. Part of it is economics—postsecondary enrollment typically declines during boom times, and increases when work is scarce.

Interest in four-year degrees is stronger than ever. Despite the struggles of some small colleges, applications to larger, more prestigious universities are at an all-time high. More to the point, Nassirian is skeptical the favorable market conditions that currently prevail for trade schools will sustain over the long-term.

“There are plenty of liberal arts postsecondary programs that today can make legitimate claims to bringing about economic success for the people taking part in them,” he says. “There is no evidence that [trade and technical schools] can be scaled up to replace colleges in terms of labor demands and other factors.”

U.S. Undergraduate Degree Categories by Median Annual Earnings

  1. Architecture and engineering: $85,000
  2. Computers, statistics, and mathematics: $80,000
  3. Business: $67,000
  4. Physical sciences: $66,000
  5. Health: $66,000
  6. Social sciences: $62,000
  7. Biology and life sciences: $57,000
  8. Agriculture and natural resources: $57,000
  9. Communications and journalism: $57,000
  10. Law and public policy: $56,000
  11. Humanities and liberal arts: $53,000
  12. Industrial arts, consumer services, and recreation: $53,000
  13. Arts: $50,000
  14. Psychology and social work: $47,000
  15. Education: $46,000

    Source: Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce

    1983 and the Marine Who Changed American Education Forever

    Plumber working under kitchen sink, overhead view

    Juice ImagesGetty Images

    Though you’ve likely never head of Ted Bell, the course of modern American education can be fairly traced to a sadistic punishment he endured as a young man at the hands of a superior and deeply anti-intellectual force.

    In 1942, shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Ted Bell left his college in Idaho and joined the United States Marine Corps. Five-foot-five and a self-described “runt,” Bell nevertheless had a fully developed mouth. Only a few weeks into boot camp, he was shocked by much of what he’d seen and decided to enlighten his commanding officer with some unsolicited opinions on how the Corps might improve its overall effectiveness. Bell pointed out numerous flaws with the organization, the most glaring of which was the intellect of his fellow Marines, which he judged to be shamefully substandard.

    Genuine educational reform will require both creative vision and plenty of sweat equity.

    Bell’s CO responded to this bit of boot insouciance by stripping the young man to his undershorts, having him beaten with rubber hoses and thrown into solitary confinement for 72 hours. Subsisting on bread and water and relieving himself “in a crock in the corner of a very black cell,” Bell had much time to entertain whatever intellectual whimsy flew into his head. The experience conferred several lessons, the most powerful of which was, as they say in Texas and apparently the Marines, never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.

    “The Marines fought the remainder of World War II without another word of advice from me as to how to improve their operations,” he later wrote.

    Following the war, Bell became a successful educator and school administrator, eventually rising to Utah Commissioner of Higher Education. In 1981, president-elect Ronald Reagan asked Bell to be his secretary of education. One of Reagan’s major campaign issues was the now-familiar conservative cry to abolish the Department of Education. Given that Bell had been instrumental in the Carter-era creation of the Department of Education, the move perplexed just about everyone in Washington, conservative and liberal.

    Bell had no intention of abolishing the department. In 1983, his department published “A Nation at Risk,” a now-landmark critique of the U.S. education system. From Capitol Hill to PTA meetings on Persimmon Lane, “A Nation at Risk” shattered delusions of American academic competence.

    “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war,” the report began. It astutely identified the dawn of the “information age,” proclaimed America had “lost sight of the basic purpose of schooling” and proposed a new course of education built on “knowledge, learning, information, and skilled intelligence (which) are the new raw materials of international commerce.”

    With the nation freaking out over the superior math, language and geography abilities of Japanese and German kids, a thoroughly blindsided Reagan barnstormed the country with Bell promoting his message, the Department of Education was saved and a revised philosophy of education took hold across the land.

    “Vocational education was run out of town in the 1980s,” says Carnevale.

    It’d be obtuse to call “A Nation at Risk” Bell’s revenge for the mistreatment he’d suffered at the hands of that Marine commanding officer. He was far too judicious a man for that. But it’s telling that in his entire memoir the story of that intellectual beat down was the only anecdote he saw fit to include about his three-and-a-half years serving with the Marines in the Pacific during World War II.

    “In 1983 a movement began to give every K-12 student a solid general academic education. Also in 1983, the economy just takes over; we shift from a high school economy to what is essentially a postsecondary economy,” says Carnevale. “The wage premium for a college degree in the 1970s was around 40 percent. In 1983 it started to rise. Economists assumed it would correct itself. But then it kept going past 70 percent. Everybody started to notice blue-collar jobs were dying and up-skilling of jobs was going on everywhere.”

    All of this was good news for certain types of students and jobs. Not as much for others.

    “Vocational education was run out of town in the 1980s,” says Carnevale.

    Political Football

    Because it is, according to Carnevale, “one of three or four things that actually moves votes in this country,” education remains a political football. Headed by Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education wants to eliminate laws governing for-profit trade and technical schools and roll back regulations protecting students against deceptive practices.

    These pronouncements have many educators in fits. Virtually anyone in the field will tell you fraud remains the biggest problem with trade, technology, and certificate schools.

    “Education is a paradise for hustlers because we don’t track education outcomes,” says Carnevale, who served as an expert witness for the prosecution against private DeVry University. That 2016 federal court case ended with DeVry agreeing to a $100 million settlement for tens of thousands of students damaged by misleading ads promising employment and high-earning potential.

    Carnevale says DeVos’s policies get “half of it right.”

    “Everybody wants to expand federal aid to training programs, however short they are,” he says. “That’s clearly in the wind. But it’s going to require transparency, which really means regulation, even though nobody wants to use that word. There’s bipartisan support for that.

    “Construction and welding were the dumb-kid classes,” says plumbing student Cruz.

    “In the end, for a program to be eligible for public money you’re going to get the social security numbers of students and those will get tracked to employer wage records. Then the decision can be made to fund or not fund based on w
    hat happened to graduates of that program. That’s the game.”

    Future law could require postsecondary schools to provide tracking information to all prospective students before they enroll in a program. If someone wants to pursue a master’s degree in classics or a certificate in HVAC, that’s fine, as long as they’re first provided with the earnings history of graduates of those programs.

    “That’s the real revolution coming in higher ed,” says Carnevale. “It’s students actually being told what the likely earnings outcomes are.”

    Stigmas Die Hard

    Happy professional craftsman standing in workshop with tools

    wundervisualsGetty Images

    Though it may be fading a little, the stigma of intellectual inferiority still lingers around trade schools like the residual funk of an old dog who long ago left the room. The kids who skip college do so because they aren’t mentally up to the task. We know that’s not often true, but we think it anyway. The stigma is something trade and tech schools and community colleges are still fighting, and maybe always will.

    “With no well-known status ladder … Americans have had to depend for their mechanism of snobbery far more than other peoples on their college and university hierarchy,” noted the social critic Paul Fussell. He agreed with author John Brooks in distinguishing “the two basic American classes, the college-educated and the not-college-educated.”

    “I took AP physics in high school and I understood that was one of the smart-kid classes,” says 18-year-old Perry Tech plumbing student Zane Cruz. “Construction and welding were the dumb-kid classes.”

    “You get out of high school and you’re told you have to go to college to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer,” says Rodriguez. “They tell you being a mechanic is a shitty job, you should strive for something better. There’s a stigma to these jobs, no matter how well they pay.”

    Like so many divides in America, this one also increasingly seems to be drawn along urban and rural lines.

    “I do better recruiting at country schools with the guys who grew up on farms; not so much in the city,” says Hannah.

    “The rural workforce has always been more amenable to sub-baccalaureate education,” says Carnevale. This has to do with income but also with culture. “In the South, they see the community college as providing rank-and-file professionals. That’ll never happen within 300 miles of Harvard.”

    Hannah says a generational element is also at play. “Millennials think in terms of money and vacation,” he says. “That’s what I get asked the most, what kind of money and what kind of vacation do you have? A couple years ago we took a whole company class on how to deal with millennials.”

    Inevitably, racism raises its dispiriting hand.

    “That time we now think of as the golden age of higher education was a lot more male, white and affluent,” says Nassirian director of federal policy with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “At the time this was thought of as social progress. Today, when higher education tends to be far more inclusive of different populations, college strikes many people as socialism.”

    With so many ways to divide us, genuine educational reform will require both creative vision and plenty of sweat equity.

    “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

    Steve Jobs said that when launching the iPad 2 in 2011. Today, the challenge remains the same, and the payoff just as large. All we need are skilled people who know how to put all the pieces of this thing together and get the whole machine working like it’s supposed to.

    15 Tech Degrees by Average Annual Earnings

    Specific programs, not simply degrees or years of schooling, are increasingly considered the basic unit of analysis for postsecondary education. Education analysts and policy makers look at tables like these in concluding that program type is becoming more important than degree level when determining economic outcomes.

    Computer and Information Services

    • Share of certificates: 9%
    • In-field earnings: $70,400


      • Share of certificates: 1%
      • In-field earnings: $65,600


        • Share of certificates: 6%
        • In-field earnings: $61,700


          • Share of certificates: 1%
          • In-field earnings: $59,600

            Police/Protective Services

            • Share of certificates: 2%
            • In-field earnings: $55,500

              Refrigeration, Heating or Air Conditioning

              • Share of certificates: 4%
              • In-field earnings: $53,900

                Construction Trades

                • Share of certificates: 8%
                • In-field earnings: $51,000


                  • Share of certificates: 1%
                  • In-field earnings: $47,800

                    Auto Mechanics

                    • Share of certificates: 9%
                    • In-field earnings: $45,600


                      • Share of certificates: 4%
                      • In-field earnings: $45,000

                        Transportation and Materials Moving

                        • Share of certificates: 5%
                        • In-field earnings: $44,300

                          Business/Office Management

                          • Share of certificates: 17%
                          • In-field earnings: $40,000

                            Health Care

                            • Share of certificates: 21%
                            • In-field earnings: $30,600


                              • Share of certificates: 11%
                              • In-field earnings: $25,200

                                Food Service

                                • Share of certificates: 2%
                                • In-field earnings: $17,600

                                  Source: Georgetown CEW Survey of Income and Program Participation

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