Thousands of well-paying construction jobs remain unfilled even as many high school students continue to be shepherded into four-year university programs that take longer than expected to complete and leave them deep in debt, a new report finds.
The Hechinger Report, which specializes in reporting on educational issues, focused on an audit of secondary career and technical education programs in Washington state. It found that high school graduates are being encouraged to enroll in four-year college programs even as the cost of a degree is going up and the financial return on a degree is going down. At the same time, many thousands of construction jobs that pay better and take less training are going begging.
There are now more than 3,200 slots open for carpenters, electricians, plumbers, pipe-fitters, and sheet-metal workers in Washington state. Many of these jobs pay more than the state’s average wage of $54,000.
The problem extends well beyond Washington’s borders. The Associated General Contractors of America says that 70% of U.S. construction companies have trouble finding qualified workers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects construction jobs nationally to increase by 11% through 2026, for a total of 746,600 new jobs. The bureau’s occupation outlook lists a variety of jobs that will pay $50,000 or more and that do not require a college degree. One study estimates there are roughly 30 million jobs in the U.S. that pay an average of $55,000 a year and do not require a bachelor’s degree.
Even so, many high school students “are not given the information or courses necessary to take advantage of these options,” the Washington auditor’s report said. Students should be encouraged to explore more career options as early as the 7th or 8th grade.
“There’s that perception of the bachelor’s degree being the American dream, the best bang for your buck,” Kate Blosveren Kreamer, deputy executive director of Advance CTE, an association of state officials who work in career and technical education, told The Hechinger Report. “The challenge is that in many cases it’s become the fallback. People are going to college without a plan, without a career in mind, because the mindset in high school is just, ‘Go to college.’”
Out-earning college friends
Garret Morgan, a 20-year-old Seattle-area high school graduate, has found an alternative to the four-year college path he tried and then abandoned. He and other young workers are enrolled in a training program for ironworkers that provides well-paying jobs now and will allow them to earn an associate’s college degree after four or five years.
In the mornings, Morgan attends classes at the Pacific Northwest Ironworkers shop near the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. When not in class, Morgan works for employers in the area, where he gets $28.36 an hour plus benefits and a pension. He will make more than $50,000 a year while his friends from high school are still attending college classes.
“Someday maybe they’ll make as much as me,” Morgan said.
Nearly 1.9 million bachelor’s degrees were awarded nationally in 2015. Grads are more likely to have jobs and make more money than those without degrees, but the wage premium isn’t as sharp as it used to be, and the number of students who borrow money to attend college has increased to nearly 70%, with an average debt of $26,300.
Many college students also have trouble graduating on time. Three out of 10 high school graduates who go on to a four-year college programs at public universities are still there six years later, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center says. The same is true of 20% of students enrolled in four-year private colleges.
Even so, said Chris Cortines, who co-authored the Washington State educational audit, there is an emphasis on the four-year college track.
“Being more aware of other types of options may be exactly what they need,” Cortines said. “When you look at the types of wages that apprenticeships and other career areas pay and the fact that you do not pay four years of tuition and you’re paid while you learn, these other paths really need some additional consideration.”