Value of vocational degrees: Preparing the workforce for all occupations

Posted December 05, 2016 by

College or vocational degreeContributing writer Ted Bauer

Recently, we have heard a lot of arguments that the college degree is essentially the new high school degree. (Some even believe that, within 5-10 years, a graduate degree will be the new college degree.) As more people pursue four-year degrees, they’re accruing debt. As they do so, they enter a job market where wages aren’t rising that much.  

Student loans have become a crisis in some respects, and this is happening at a time when many wages are stagnant or falling. As such, there’s been an increased focus on the value of vocational and technical degrees. In fact, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner appeared at a ReCode event in late November and said the U.S. cares too much about four-year degrees. He adds:  

“Historically here, there’s been a tremendous amount of weight that’s been given to four-year university degrees and not nearly enough weight in my opinion is given to vocational training facilities and vocational training certifications.”

Weiner’s stance is echoed by a report from McKinsey entitled “Voice of The Graduate.” As summarized in Forbes, one of the most sobering statistics from the report is that half of recent graduates indicate they’d choose another major, school, or course of education entirely if they could go back. In a similar vein from the same study, 33% of recent graduates feel college didn’t prepare them well for the world of work.

One of the issues here, as noted by Mark Phillips on Edutopia, is a “blue-collar stigma in a white-collar society.” He points to John W. Gardner’s book from the 1960s, Excellence, where Gardner argued that we need to develop excellence across all occupations for economic and social health. An over-focus on developing white-collar occupations can be bad for society.

The economics of all this is complicated and nuanced, so we won’t go down that specific rabbit hole. Vocational education is crucial, however, and unfortunately very undervalued. You can group “technical” and “vocational” training together in some ways, and consider this: a large percentage of job growth in North America right now comes from the technology sector. Those are specific skills: coding, computer repair, algorithms, machine learning, etc. There is some belief that technology, in the form of automation, could take between 47-54% of jobs in the next decade or two. While there are specific service capacities that seem likely to be automated, there will always be a need to work on the programs providing the automation. Those skills could be acquired in a vocational or technical context.

Much of the shift away from vocational training occurred in the 1950s, with a belief that students should be allowed to pursue individual courses of study relative to ability. While this has been very productive for the U.S. in some respects (i.e. innovation, entrepreneurship), it’s also left people behind. 68% of high school students end up going to college per recent numbers; while that’s very high, it still leaves more than 3 in 10 students behind. Providing that group with vocational and technical skills would be beneficial to many types of employers.

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