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High-paying trade jobs sit empty even as college degrees drop in value

The American economy needs fewer bachelor’s degrees and more ironworkers

Thousands of high-paying blue-collar jobs that don’t require a college degree sit empty because too many people think college is necessary, according to the Hechinger Report.

“While a shortage of workers pushes wages higher in the skilled trades, the financial return from a bachelor’s degree is softening, even as the price, and the average debt into which it plunges students, remain high,” the higher education news outlet reported.

So many high school graduates have been coached and primed to get a bachelor’s that highly paid jobs requiring less expensive and time-consuming training are not being filled. This “poses a real threat to the economy,” according to the news outlet.

There’s a mistaken idea that college “is the sole path for everybody,” Chris Cortines, co-author of a report on Washington state career and tech education programs, told the Hechinger Report.

“There’s an emphasis on the four-year university track” in high schools across the country, he said. However, “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,” Cortines said.

Most trade employers do require some post-secondary education, according to the Hechinger Report. But those qualifications typically cost a lot less and take much less time than a bachelor’s degree.

U.S. has a deficit of skilled tradespeople

Nearly 90 percent of contractors struggle to find craft workers and 61 percent of firms reported delays due to workforce shortages, according to a 2021 news release from the Associated General Contractors of America.

The country needs more ironworkers, drywall installers, and sheet metal workers, in particular, according to the Hechinger Report.

Ironworkers earn an average of $57,160 per year, the news outlet reported.

Even more, median wages for construction jobs are higher than the median pay for all jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Half of payroll workers in construction earn more than $49,030 and the top 25% make at least $68,690 [in 2020],” according to a news release that year from the National Association of Home Builders. In contrast, in 2020 the U.S. median wage was $39,810.

Overall, approximately 30 million jobs in the United States that pay an average of $55,000 per year don’t require bachelor’s degrees, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

In response, at least 39 states actively encourage career and technical education, and many have increased funding for these pathways, according to a 2017 Brookings Institute review.

Even more, legislation introduced in Congress last month would make some shorter post-high school workforce programs eligible for federal Pell Grants.

“For too long, the college-for-all mentality drove Americans toward expensive and often ineffective education pathways,” according to the legislation’s sponsors.

“As our country stares down a historic worker shortage, fewer Americans are getting the skills they need to be successful.”

MORE: Consider a skilled trade career, Chicago Public Schools tell students

IMAGE: FOTO Eak/Shutterstock

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