This is an updated version of a story we originally published in 2018, with new reports, data, and statistics that reflect the conditions of 2023.
Like most other American high school students, Garrett Morgan had it constantly pressed: Go to college. Get a bachelor’s degree.
“All my life it’s been like, ‘If you don’t go to college you’ll end up on the streets. Everyone is so excited about going to college,'” Morgan said back in 2018.
So try it for a while. Then he quit and began training as an ironworker, which he did on weekday mornings in a nondescript concrete-floored high-ceilinged building in an industrial park near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Morgan and many other men and women wore work boots and hard hats, buckled in seat belts with heavy wrenches dangling from their belts. They were timed as they wrestled the 600-pound I-beams into place.
At that time, ironworkers were in high demand – and still are: The sector is growing at 4% annually, According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Ironworkers earn, on average, $27.48 an hour, or $57,160 a year. Morgan was already working on a job site when he wasn’t at the Pacific Northwest Ironworkers shop. At age 20, he was earning $28.36 an hour, plus interest.
Five years later, he was working full time, working “six-ten” — linguistically 10 hours a day, six days a week. He helped build the Rainier Square tower in Seattle and a data center for Microsoft. He said, “I love him every day.” “It was absolutely the right choice.
As for his friends from high school? “One day maybe they will earn what they earn from me.”
While a shortage of workers pushes wages higher in the skilled trades, the financial return from a bachelor’s degree declines, even as the price and average student debt remain high.
But high school graduates were so actively encouraged to earn bachelor’s degrees that high-paying jobs requiring shorter, cheaper training were not filled. This affects these students and also poses a real threat to the economy.
“Parents want success for their children,” Mike Clifton, who studied machines for more than two decades at Lake Washington Institute of Technology before retiring, said in 2018. [four-year bachelor’s degrees]and they do not see a shortage of merchants until they hire a plumber and have to write a check.”
The Washington State Auditor in 2017 found that good jobs are in skilled trades They were going to beg Because students are almost universally drawn to bachelor’s degrees. Recent job statistics indicate that’s still the case – in Washington state and across the country.
President Biden, in his State of the Union address this month, spoke of “jobs that pay an average of $130,000 a year, many of which don’t require a college degree.”
Among other things, the Washington auditor recommended that career guidance — including options that require fewer than four years of college — begin as early as the seventh grade.
“There is an emphasis on the four-year college track” in high schools, said Chris Cortines, who co-authored the report, after its release. However, nationally, nearly three in 10 high school graduates go on to four-year public universities. You have not earned degrees in six years, latest figures from the National Student Clearing House gallery. At private four-year colleges, that number is roughly one in five.
“It may be that their awareness of other types of options is exactly what they need,” Cortines said. Despite the perception that college “is the only path for everyone,” he said, “when you look at the kinds of wages that apprenticeships and other career fields pay, and the fact that you don’t pay four years of college and you get paid while you learn, those other paths really need to be More consideration.”
And it’s not just in Washington state.
Today, nearly 90% of construction companies nationwide They are having difficulty finding qualified workersaccording to Associated General Contractors of America; In Washington, the rate is 88%.. Ironworkers are still sorely lacking, along with drywall installers and sheet metal workers.
$1.2 trillion federal infrastructure plan – Biden’s signature legislation passed by Congress – will be created in 2024 1.5 million construction jobs annually Over the next 10 years, the White House says, boost the share of all jobs associated with rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure from 11% to 14%According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Average wages for construction jobs Above average wage for all positionsBureau of Labor Statistics reports.
“Economics definitely brings this issue to the fore,” Amy Morrison Goings, president of the Lake Washington Institute of Technology, which educates students in these areas, said in 2018. Don’t call the college and ask the college, “Who’s ready to go to work?” “
In all, there are about 30 million jobs in the United States that pay an average of $55,000 annually. Does not require a bachelor’s degreeAccording to the Georgetown Center for Education and Workforce.
However, the march to a bachelor’s degree continues. And while people who get it are more likely to be employed and earn more than those who don’t, that premium appears to be going down; Their inflation-adjusted average earnings It was lower in 2018which is the most recent year for which this number is available, compared to 2010.
“There’s a perception that a bachelor’s degree is the American dream, and best bang for your buck,” said Kate Blausverein Cramer, deputy executive director of Advance CTE, an association of state officials who work in career and technical education. “The challenge is that in a lot of cases it becomes a fallback. People go to college without a plan, without thinking about a career, because the mentality in high school is just, ‘Go to college.'”
Not that finding a job in the professions, or even manufacturing, means not having an education after high school. Most regulators and employers require certificates, certificates, or associate degrees. But it costs less and takes less time than earning a bachelor’s degree.
Tuition and fees for in-state students to attend a community or technical college in Washington state, for example, It came to less than half the cost last year from a four-year public university, and less than one-fifth the price of admission to the cheapest private four-year college.
Washington isn’t the only state that encourages students to pursue career education. 39 countries at least Steps have been taken to encourage vocational and technical educationAnd a 2017 Brookings Institution review found that many have increased funding for it.
at the federal level, He introduced the legislation in Congress In January, it will make certain short-term workforce programs eligible for federal Pell grants. “For too long, the college-for-everyone mentality has pushed Americans down expensive and often ineffective paths of education,” said his shepherds. “As our country stares down a historic labor shortage, fewer Americans are getting the skills they need to succeed.”
Career and Technical Education advocates say money is not the only issue. The biggest challenge is convincing parents that it leads to good jobs.
“They remember their ‘voices’ when they were in high school, and that’s not necessarily what they aspire to be for their kids,” Cramer said. “It’s kind of a sign that it’s a dirty job,” added Kerry Pierce, director of college and career training for the AFL-CIO’s Washington State Labor Council. It’s hard work – I want something better for my son or daughter. “”
About 20 miles from Seattle, Goings, president of the Lake Washington Institute of Technology, changed its name from Lake Washington Technical College, to avoid being portrayed as a vocational school.
These perceptions feed into the concern that if students are prodded as early as seventh grade to consider careers, low-income, first-generation, and students of color will be steered into blue-collar jobs while their classmates are more affluent and white. Paid by their parents to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
“When CTE was a vocational education, part of the reason for a real divestment from the system was because we were following low-income children and minorities down these pathways,” Cramer said. “There is a tension between, do you want to focus on the people who are going to get the most benefit from these programs, and — is this tracking?”
In seeking prestige and rankings, and promoting real estate values, high schools also like to emphasize how many of their graduates get into four-year colleges and universities.
Jessica Bruce attended community college after high school for one main reason: because she was recruited to play fast-pitch softball. “I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” she said.
But today, she says, she “couldn’t quite comprehend it.” She was an apprentice iron worker in 2018, making $32.42 an hour, or more than $60,000 annually, while continuing her training. At 5-foot-2, she said, “I can run with the big boys,” she said at the time, laughing.
Five years later, now at 46, she got down to business installing 500 tons of rebar in a Boeing hangar near Seattle, working mostly outside, which she likes. She’s also back in school, of sorts, taking online courses to get her certification and become a fitness instructor as a side tool. Harley has bought.
Bruce says she has “no regrets at all” herself. As for her 15-year-old daughter, “If it’s college, it’s college,” she says. “I totally support that.” She added that students now in high school are “maybe a little more aware” of the potential for making good money in the professions. “I know my daughter knows that. I’ve told her there’s all kinds of commerce out there.”
The original 2018 version of this story was jointly reported with KNKX’s Ashley Gross.