Earn a college degree, move to a major city, and land a white‐collar job in the knowledge economy—that’s the path many millennials have been taught to follow. But that route isn’t always viable. Crushing student loan debt, skyrocketing housing costs, and wage stagnation are making postgrad life unaffordable for many young people.
Pursuit of this traditional path is still important, but solid futures are available through vocational education and two-year degrees as well. More parents and students should recognize that even for students who do not seek a four-year degree, high school graduation should not mark the end of education, and that two-year degrees and certificate programs offer a pathway to outstanding, good-paying careers.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual compensation in manufacturing, including wages and benefits, is $85,097. Demand for skilled trade workers is surging. Better yet, training for a skilled trade is economically savvy and typically leads to a good paying job, often in an area with a lower cost of living.
However, we must eliminate the myth—often held by both students and parents—that skilled trade careers are a subpar career choice. A skills gap in manufacturing exists, and it’s time we encourage students, parents, and guidance counselors to recommend vocational schools after high school, and it’s time for state governments and industry alike to recognize the benefit of vocational training in high schools before graduation.
That skills gap is not going away any time soon, so what steps can we take to solve this issue and promote interest in manufacturing careers? First, we need to scale up training programs and access to skilled trade education. Many state governments have noticed both the shortage in skilled trade practitioners and excessive enrollment in degree-granting institutions, and they’re taking action. Michigan, California and Florida are among the many states implementing plans to support career and technical education (CTE) programs and vocational education.
Look for organizations and programs that advocate for manufacturing career opportunities, like SME’s Education Foundation. The foundation supports students pursuing certification, training and education in STEM fields, and also introduces younger students and their families to STEM experiences and opportunities. Since 2011, our PRIME program has reached more than 50,000 students in 46 communities across 22 states, teaching them the skills they’ll need to pursue promising careers in manufacturing. Hands-on access to technology and personal interaction with industry experts provide a dynamic experience for students at annual SME events. SME member advisors educate high school and college students, educators and counselors about exciting manufacturing careers.
Teaching Through Doing
One American manufacturing advocate, Titan Gilroy, developed the TITANS of CNC Academy, a free machinist school that serves more than 28,000 students and 1500 teachers in 130 countries. Gilroy’s academy teaches skills ranging from programming CNC machines to engineering and machining parts. Gilroy was asked on a recent LinkedIn thread how he gets younger generations excited about a career in manufacturing. He responded, “I teach kids through the process of ‘doing’ from day one, and empower them to CNC machine parts within the first few days of walking into this trade. They learn the trade and then build confidence through repetition.”
Clearly, it’s time to rethink career planning. Manufacturing professionals need to educate local high school students and parents about skilled trade opportunities. We all need to help students reach for rewarding careers in manufacturing and by doing so help close the skills gap.