vocational training in high demand

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he United States has one of the best education systems in the world and is often seen as a model for other countries to follow. It lays a strong emphasis on youngsters to finish a college degree to secure a desirable future. State governments provide incentives like scholarships, in-state tuition and loans to make sure that students complete their formal education. However, it is easier said than done, and the traditional approach appears to be changing.

While the high school drop-out rate in the US has decreased from 8 percent to just over 5 percent in the last couple of years, the college dropout rate continues to be a challenge. Almost 31 percent of students did not complete college and dropped midway, per the figures compiled by the US Department of Education in 2021.

In a survey, the reasons provided by these students for dropping out of college included financial situation, family issues, disinterest and a different career path. The last category included students who showed more interest in vocational training than in formal education.

A major factor in this surge has been the disruption due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While a number of conventional jobs were lost and businesses suffered, demand for skilled workers increased. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Centre, enrollment in the four-year undergraduate degree in the US has declined nearly 8 percent overall in the two years after the pandemic. On the other hand, enrollment in skilled courses has increased in double digits in most states.

The Bureau of Labour Statistics has projected substantial demand, from 2021 till 2031, in skilled trades like plumbers, electricians, AC technicians, construction workers and industry technicians. The minimum starting salaries for most of these jobs are around $55,000 to $60,000 annually, higher than what most engineering graduates with four-year undergraduate degrees struggle to secure immediately after college.

The same is the case with the health sector. While the route for a medical doctor is lengthier (8-10 years after high school) and the chances for residency after medical school are limited, demand for health technicians is on the rise. Most of these technicians do a two-year associate degree after high school and get a starting salary of $70,000 to $80,000 per annum.

Michelle Barnes, who teaches at a high school in Houston, agrees that the trend has shifted after Covid-19. “Perhaps students realised after seeing their high-flying seniors getting fired from their jobs that skill was more important than degrees,” she says, adding that the value of money when it comes to education is also a consideration. A majority of students had to take loans to complete a college degree and then spent years repaying it, whereas skilled trade required only a fraction of that spending with higher returns, she points out.

The Bureau of Labour Statistics has projected substantial demand, from 2021 till 2031, in skilled trades like plumbers, electricians, AC technicians, construction workers and industry technicians. The starting salaries for most of these jobs are around $55,000 to $60,000 annually, higher than what engineering graduates struggle to secure right away.

The average loan of a college student is $40,000-$50,000 by the time they graduate. The skilled trade route takes almost four to five times less money and nearly half of the time to complete with more or less equal starting salaries. Many of these skilled workers can work freelance and don’t even have to worry about finding a job.

The US education system offers two routes to students interested in learning skills related to various trades. Most high schools offer classes where these students can enroll and try to find their niche. If they are interested in getting more education in the skill of their choice, they can enroll at a community college for a two-year associate degree and start working immediately afterwards. In case they feel like completing a formal four-year undergrad degree, they can transfer credits to a college or university to complete the remaining two years.

Dr Andrew Berman, who works at a skills training school in Texas, says that these vocational courses offer a non-traditional route for students to become successful. “Most of the times, getting a college degree is just an icing on the cake for these students sometime later in their lives. They do it to fulfill a dream, knowing fully well that it will not have much bearing on their career or skillset otherwise,” he says.

He says that sometimes students are unsure about what they want to do with their lives. They drop out of school or college and return after a few years to get back on track. “Skilled trades are an excellent option for them at that stage to make-up for the lost time,” he explains. When asked whether students coming from other countries could also use this opportunity, he says that those who were not hopeful of getting blue collar jobs could make use of vocational training and become part of the labour force in the US.

Javed Ali, a student of Pakistani origin who migrated to the US at the age of 19, is one such case. He says that he dropped out of school in the 9th grade in Pakistan and came to the US at a time when he couldn’t be enrolled in high school. “I completed a diploma at a local community college and then enrolled for the electrician’s course,” he shares. “I now run my own business of installing home air conditioners and I make more money than my brother who is an engineer at an oil refinery,” he says, wearing a smile on his face. When asked about the expenses incurred on education, he says that he owed no debt whereas his brother would continue to repay his share for the next 10-12 years.

When asked about opportunities for such students outside the US, Dr Berman says that Middle Eastern states and Gulf countries had great potential for these workers. “Even Canada has opened new categories for skilled workers recently,” he says while advising those willing to migrate to the United States to focus more on vocational training if they didn’t have a professional degree. “Your skills will be worth a lot more than that piece of paper,” he says emphatically.

The writer teachesjournalism at LamarUniversity in Texas.He tweets at awaissaleem77

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