Not so rewarding technical training

Increasingly the story we are being told about the economy is that there are too many people with four-year degrees and not enough with training for mid-skill jobs. Needing something like an associates degree with an occupational major or occupational certificate. And increasingly we are also being told that getting a four-year degree in a non-STEM occupation is the road to a debt-ridden life because of out of control tuition, too high student loans and too many college graduates working in jobs that pay too little to pay off those loans. The story continues: A far better path for many would be lower cost training for mid-skill jobs.

Neither story is accurate. We have explored frequently (for more see this recent post) the data on both work and income by education attainment that makes clear that those with a four year degree––including in non-STEM fields––do better than those with two year degrees or some college. In this post I want to deal with the claim that technical training is a lower cost, debt free (or close to it) path to a good paying job and career.

Two recent New York Times articles make clear that technical training is not the panacea many claim to good paying jobs, without taking on lots, if any, student debt. In an extensive article entitled Seeking New Start, Finding Steep Cost: Workforce Investment Act Leaves Many Jobless and in Debt the Times found:

Millions of unemployed Americans like Mr. DeGrella have trained for new careers as part of the Workforce Investment Act, a $3.1 billion federal program that, in an unusual act of bipartisanship, was reauthorized by Congress last month with little public discussion about its effectiveness. Like Mr. DeGrella, many have not found the promised new career. Instead, an extensive analysis of the program by The New York Times shows, many graduates wind up significantly worse off than when they started — mired in unemployment and debt from training for positions that do not exist, and they end up working elsewhere for minimum wage.

The experiences of Mr. DeGrella are featured in the article. The Times reports:

He took each step in line with the advice of the federal government: He met with an unemployment counselor who provided him with a list of job titles the Labor Department determined to be in high demand, he picked from among colleges that offered government-certified job-training courses, and he received a federal retraining grant. In 2009, Mr. DeGrella, began a course at Daymar College — a for-profit vocational institute in Louisville — to become a cardiology technician. Daymar officials told him he would have a well-paying job within weeks of graduation. But after about two years of studying cardiovascular physiology and the mechanics of electrocardiograms, Mr. DeGrella, now 57, found himself jobless and $20,000 in debt. He moved into his sister’s basement and now works at an AutoZone.

In an Upshot article entitled When Higher Education Doesn’t Deliver on Its Promise the Times looks at training for medial assistants. A so-called high-demand occupation that does not require a four-year degree. The Times reports:

But new federal data that track college graduates into the job market tell a far more sobering story. The market for medical-assistant education is deeply troubling. Many people who graduate from such programs struggle to find work. Those who do find work often make little money — too little to repay their debts from the program. Despite the happy poster images, the market for medical-assistant education is actually an allegory for the problems in the parts of higher education that tend to attract low-income and middle-class students: little regulation and uneven — often mediocre — results. The same problems afflict many community colleges, lower-tier four-year colleges and training programs in fields like office management and culinary arts. According to the Department of Labor, the median annual salary for medical assistants in 2011 was $29,100. Yet most recent graduates of medical-assistant training programs earn much less, which suggests the programs are not reliable routes to good jobs as assistants. Among the 100,000 students who earned a medical-assistant certificate in 2008 or 2009, roughly 94 percent attended a program where graduates typically earned less than $20,000 in 2011, the data show.

Somehow conventional wisdom, despite all the evidence to the contrary, has exaggerated the number of mid-skill and/or skilled trades jobs that the economy demands, the pay in those jobs, the costs of preparing for those jobs, and the effectiveness of training programs to prepare their students for good paying jobs and careers. At the same time conventional wisdom is far more negative, once again despite all the evidence to the contrary, about the results for occupations and training for those with four-year degrees.

As we have written often there are good paying jobs and careers available to those with an associates degree with an occupational major or occupational certificate (or their equivalents). You can prepare for those jobs in relatively low tuition, high quality schools––almost always a community college. But for those who have the interest and ability to get a four-year degree that is the most reliable path to a middle class job and, more importantly, middle class or above forty year career.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I think one of the biggest problems is for profit colleges which seem to be very good at marketing recruiting students. However, such schools often do a poor job of training students to be ready for a career when they graduate. I noticed that both of the referenced articles featured graduates of for-profit schools. I hope some graduates from community colleges are doing better at preparing students and helping the find a job.

    1. Agree that by and large community colleges are a better option than for profits. But community colleges have very low completion rates as well. For those who earn an occupational certificate or associates degree with occupational major employment and sometimes wage results are good, for those who don’t the results aren’t.

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