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Is Workforce Training The New Bachelor's Degree?

Cathy Carter/WUSF
Joshua Holderby meets with area employers at an open house for Suncoast Technical College in Sarasota.

Singapore and Switzerland have at least one thing in common.

Both countries boast a low unemployment rate for young adults and some researchers say that's because of robust post-secondary vocational training.  Lawmakers say the U.S. needs to step up its game and follow suit.  

Joshua Holderby seems to be an ideal candidate. He’s a tall 18 year old with a buzz cut and impeccable manners and greets each adult he meets with a sir or a ma'am as he checks out the various information tables set up for a recent open house at Suncoast Technical College in Sarasota.

Holderby graduated from Sarasota Military Academy High School in May and spent the summer working at a gas station. It was just long enough for him to realize that it’s not the best long-term career strategy. But he's watched both his parents struggle with bills and he doesn't want to face a similar fate.

"They've been out of college for 15 years and they're still paying off their loans,” he said. “They owe maybe 50, 60 thousand dollars apiece."

But money isn't the only reason Holderby is talking to area employers and getting a tour of the school's industrial education lab.  With its shorter degree programs, a vocational college education is cheaper and faster to complete. But with a curriculum that includes areas like plumbing and electricity, Suncoast also offers something he says is very important to him.

"Basically any job that has job security,” he said. “I think that's something that everybody needs to focus on because colleges like to push these careers that there's no jobs for."

Job creation and reducing college debt are hot topics in this campaign season-- with much talk about how to best train people for long term employment.

Andrew Hanson, an analyst for Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce, said wages for young college and high school graduates are considerably lower than they were 15 years ago. But, he adds, there are actually millions of well-paying jobs in the economy right now for skilled trade workers.

"If you work as an elevator installer or repairer for example you're making more than 75,000 dollars a year,” he said. “Electricians make more than 65,000 dollars a year. A lot of these jobs, I should also say, require you to get an industry-based certification and that also increases the wages."

He said those trade jobs will remain secure as baby boomers continue to retire. Chuck Drake, an administrator at Suncoast Technical College, said that's already happening. 

"I met with a guy the other day who said they may have 30 jobs but two crews so they put all the jobs in a hat and they pick out a job and that's where they go that day,” he said. “There is just a great need for the trades right now."

Andrew Hanson, the education analyst, said one reason for the shortage is lingering stereotypes attached to vo-tech school education.

"You know America very much operates under the high school to Harvard model,” he said. “So I think part of the solution here may be to bring back a level of prestige to these jobs."

A cultural and generational shift is also emerging.

Hanson said certificate and associate degree programs have grown faster over the past decade than bachelor's degrees programs. According to data from the Florida Department of Education, the state issued more than 32,000 post-secondary vocational certificates last year.

Joshua Holderby looks to be on track to earn one next year. As the open house winds down, he emerges from a conversation with a local local plumbing company with the news that they offered to cover his full tuition to Suncoast Technical College in September. They'll pay the full cost of his nine-month program in plumbing. He'll have to go to school at night though because they also offered him a full-time job.

"All benefits included and everything. I couldn't be happier."

And with that, his cell phone rang cutting the interview short. It was his mom, calling to see how everything went.

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