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One of the most common questions we hear from a very young age is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answer to that question follows us for most of our formative education years. We dress up as doctors, lawyers, and managers for career day. But nobody ever talks about vocational skills. You know, skilled laborers—the electrician who wired your house, the plumber who replaced the pipes when they burst last winter. By the time we hit middle school we, along with our parents, are worrying about which high school to attend in order to get into the right college so we get that perfect job in the field of our choice. This “career dance” has become the story for many American teenagers even today.

Higher education, for the most part, is still viewed as the preferred path to building a stable career and future. However, there could be a downside to continuing to focus solely on pushing every young adult to attend a traditional college or university and receive a bachelor’s degree or higher. Are we inadvertently creating a wider skills gap in the United States by not encouraging more of people to consider a career future built around vocational skills?

While we do need people to pursue advanced degrees and become doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals, we also need people trained in vocations with skills required to keep our world running. As the U.S. and many other first-world countries continue to watch the alarming rise in the number of labor shortages, it’s time to take action and encourage our young citizens to consider a future as a skilled tradesperson. This infographic shows just how dramatically things are shifting as baby boomers retire from their jobs in construction, manufacturing, and engineering—and younger generations continue to veer away from those industries.

We have an abundance of coders and healthcare professionals, but are running low on skilled individuals who can build, fix, and maintain our country’s infrastructure, buildings, homes, and schools. Can you imagine one day waking up to a burst pipe in your home and being unable to find a plumber within 50 miles to fix it? We are heading toward the perfect storm of baby boomers retiring from their skilled positions—which currently comprise about 62% of the skilled workforce—and younger generations not being encouraged to pursue this career path. At this point, we are looking at a gap of approximately 31 million open skilled work positions by 2020. The good news is there’s a ripe job market—and good salaries to be made—in a vocational career.

In Florida in the early 2000s, there was a push for magnet schools in the public school systems. A student could choose to explore a skilled trade during high school:  Electrician, plumber, wood worker, mechanic, hospitality services, technology programs, etc. By making this part of an exploratory process, many found it easy to graduate high school and go into the workforce. Many others started this process by furthering their education via trade schools or career colleges and became successful. That vocational program went away a few years later in favor of dual-enrollment programs, which instead encouraged traditional four-year college degrees. 

Fortunately, there is hope. Companies like Adecco are starting to help states like Kentucky and others to rethink career guidance in schools for younger students. It is also becoming easier to find career-oriented, higher education alternatives that teach a specific skill. As the world of technology and modern medicine continue to grow at record pace, jobs related to these fields will always be in high-demand. We must remember, though, that air conditioners and furnaces still need to be installed and fixed. Cars still need to be repaired. And pipes aren’t going to fix themselves. As the baby boomers reach their earned and well-deserved retirement, it is our duty to put less pressure on graduating high school students to pursue a bachelor’s degree, and more emphasis on following their heart for the career path, trade, and skill of their choosing. In fact, the future of our country and others depend on it.

We want to know what you think. How important do you feel the vocational trades are to our country’s—and the world’s—health, stability, and economic growth? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

If you’re a vocational school, trade school, or community college looking for an easier way to manage your school operations and student data, we’re here to help. Sign up for a free trial or contact us with any questions you have.

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