Degrees of separation: As college enrollment drops, trade school sign-ups rise

Six figures of debt and no job? Minimal debt and a job with an above-median salary? The latter’s appeal is growing.

increase in skilled trade program enrollment

Olivia Heller

Those “America is short on skilled labor” alarm bells have been going off for years now.

There are active shortages of ~500k construction workers, 600k+ auto technicians, and ~800k manufacturing jobs. (Plus, there’s a scarcity of carpenters.)

But we’re now seeing an encouraging sign that those bells may be answered — and then perhaps tuned up and served some dinner.

Recent enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows trade school interest is on the up-and-up, with double-digit increases in many vocational programs, including mechanic, repair, construction, and culinary courses.

  • That’s quite unlike two- and four-year college enrollment, which is on the down-and-down (7.8% and 3.4%, respectively, for public programs).

Mindsets are shifting

These numbers partially represent a pandemic rebound — as hands-on fields strained to offer hands-on training, enrollment in the trades dropped — but that’s not the entire story here.

Young people are choosing trade schools over degree programs because, well, it’s just more financially practical at this point, according to The Hechinger Report.

  • The Washington state auditor found public universities ~2x, and private colleges 10x, more expensive than a technical education.

But mostly, it’s about what happens after: The promise of actually having a job.

  • Federal data shows trade school students are more likely to be employed after school than their high-spending university counterparts — and much more likely to work in their fields of study, too.

Those trade jobs are hardly paying beans. Per Georgetown University’s Good Jobs Project, many are among the 30m jobs paying $55k+ per year that don’t require a four-year degree.

BTW: Need more job perks? We assume the 50k workers the US Navy is currently seeking to build its nuclear submarines will all be hired as consultants on a future Michael Bay film.

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