About 48 million U.S. borrowers collectively owe upwards of $1.7 trillion in federal and private student loans. Forty-four percent of college graduate job seekers regret their chosen college major. Ballooning student debt and unsatisfied graduates are the reason that students and parents are re-examining the ROI of a four-year university degree. The current system is failing many of our youth and failing to provide the workforce our country needs. If a “college for all” strategy is no longer working, what should guidance counselors tell students?

High schools usually steer students toward four-year university degree programs and away from manufacturing. Convincing guidance counselors of the value of manufacturing careers is key to recruiting and training the next-generation workforce and providing rewarding, well-paying careers for students.

A great way to change misperceptions is to bring students, parents and guidance counselors to modern factories to hear directly from businesses about their workforce and skillset needs. Counselors should make students aware of local employment opportunities and how to prepare for them.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is transforming work at an unparalleled pace due to technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, automation, and the Internet of Things (IoT). Guidance counselors should make students aware of “new-collar” jobs that prioritize skills and capabilities over degrees.

New collar workers develop technical and soft skills through nontraditional educational paths including community colleges, vocational schools, software boot camps, technical certification programs, high-school technical education, and on-the-job apprenticeships and internships as opposed to just a four-year university degree.


Skills vs. Degrees

Some experts believe the value of a bachelor’s degree is waning. Temple University President Jason Wingard argues in his book, The College Devaluation Crisis, that the college system should be more responsive to rapidly evolving needs in the workplace to better position graduates for employment and career success. Companies are starting to drop degree requirements and favor skills over degrees for middle-skill and even higher-skill roles. So when is a four-year degree worth it?

According to a study by ZipRecruiter, the value of what you study may be the most important factor in deciding the value of a four-year degree. Graduates with high starting salaries and good career prospects are the most satisfied with their choice of study. For example, students who pursued STEM studies—science, technology, engineering and math—were higher earners and more satisfied than students with liberal arts degrees.

Earning power is more a function of occupation than degree level. Workers with a two-year degree can outearn graduates of four-year universities who go into less lucrative fields. Twenty-seven percent of people with postsecondary licenses or certificates—credentials short of an associate’s degree—earn more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient. Ninety-three percent of apprentices who complete an apprenticeship retain employment, with an average annual salary of $77,000.

While some of the new collar jobs require a college education, most are “middle-skill” jobs requiring a high school diploma, a foundation of math and science, along with some additional skills training acquired through apprenticeships or credentialing programs.

Former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty said, “Getting a job at today’s IBM does not always require a college degree; at some of our centers in the United States, as many as one-third of employees have less than a four-year degree. What matters most is relevant skills, sometimes obtained through vocational training.”

Most new collar jobs are ‘middle-skill’ jobs requiring a high school diploma, a foundation of math and science, and some additional skills training.


Update Education and Labor Websites

I suggest accurately displaying the career advantages of apprenticeship vs. degrees. Many posts on the Departments of Education and Labor websites extol the unique value of degrees. The posts show income rising with the number of degrees and often have headings such as “Bachelor’s degree yields $1 million more lifetime income than a high school degree.” However, the figures never show that apprentice graduates have incomes comparable to bachelor’s degree holders. And, about one half of the “$1 million” bachelor’s degree lifetime premium is lost when you adjust for tuition costs, being able to start earning four to five years sooner, and the socioeconomic background of the worker.

In reality, about 30 percent of university graduates (primarily with liberal arts degrees) are in jobs that do not need a degree, while severe shortages of skilled tool makers, welders and precision machinists limit our ability to achieve self-sufficiency by reshoring or foreign direct investment (FDI).

Guidance counselors should be aware that U.S. labor market challenges are motivating employers to adopt skills-based hiring. According to a recent Harvard Business Review study, this reset “could have major implications for how employers find talent.” When companies eliminate a degree requirement, many stipulate specific soft skills, ranging from written and oral communication, to self-discipline, and the ability to participate effectively in unfamiliar groups.


The Way Forward

The Coalition for Career Development Center (CCD) provides a way forward. The CCD is an industry-led nonpartisan coalition committed to making career readiness the first priority of American education. The CCD believes schools and postsecondary institutions require more credentialed career advisers and licensed counselors.

To this end, the CCD has worked with the National Career Development Association to create a new staff position, school career development advisor (SCDA), who would be expected to involve the whole school, families, employers and the broader community in this effort.

SCDAs would play both a direct service role in working with students, and a coordinating role, helping integrate career development activities throughout the school experience, and working with employers to increase opportunities for work-based learning.

The CCD lays out five pillars as a roadmap for creating high-quality career development systems in the United States:

  • Prioritizing career planning.
  • Providing professional career advising.
  • Emphasizing applied and work-based learning.
  • Providing high-quality career development technology.
  • Ensuring accountability.

The Reshoring Initiative encourages companies to document and promote their cases of reshoring so that guidance counselors, students and parents will see that manufacturing is, once again, a great career choice. For help doing so, contact me at 847-867-1144 or email harry.moser@reshorenow.org.