Originally published in The Denver Post
By Kristin Todd
The transformative benefits of higher education are well known.
College graduates, on average, earn substantially more over the course of their lifetimes than those with only a high school diploma. They are more socially mobile, with more than 30 percent of college grads who were raised middle class achieving top quintile income status over the course of their careers.
I’ve seen first-hand the impact that a college education can have on a young life, yet I’m concerned about the “college for all” mindset that persists in our society.
In reality, roughly 50 percent of Denver Public Schools students don’t pursue any kind of post- graduate degree or credential following graduation.
What happens to these kids? College isn’t the best fit for everyone, but in today’s world it doesn’t have to be. There are a multitude of educational pathways available that can lead to lucrative and fulfilling careers. They just don’t tend to get the same level of attention as the traditional college path.
For example, there is a huge demand right now for highly skilled workers in fields such as cyber security, advanced manufacturing, technology and the skilled trades. These are jobs that require specialized training and/or credentials, but do not necessarily call for a traditional four- year degree. And they can be very lucrative. The average cyber security job pays $116,000 annually, according to a recent industry survey, for example.
Filling the jobs gap
Still, many employers are struggling to fill these jobs.
With current trends, the National Association of Manufacturers says there will be 2 million unfilled manufacturing jobs by 2025. Construction spending in 2017 topped $1 trillion, yet finding skilled workers to finish projects remains a major problem across the country. In Florida, diesel mechanics can make over $100,000 a year, yet they’re in short supply.
These are high paying, rewarding positions in growing career fields. Why are these jobs so difficult to fill?
In part, it’s because our educational system isn’t set up to provide the skilled workers we need to address this shortage. Too many young people coming out of high school today are seeing just one choice — going to college — and, while that is a great path for many, it isn’t the right answer for everyone. It’s time to highlight all of the other options.
Exploring all the pathways
I was initially introduced to workforce development and the importance of educational pathways for youth through my work at the Daniels Fund, a local foundation in Denver that supports a range of nonprofit organizations. One particular focus of the Daniels Fund’s grant-making is helping young people identify the options available to them as they pursue a meaningful career, supporting job shadowing, internships, and apprenticeship programs.
At the same time that I was focusing on this issue in my professional life, I was also experiencing this with my own son, who was in high school at the time.
The traditional classroom style of learning was becoming increasingly challenging for him, even though he’s bright and was always eager to learn. He struggled in class and craved a more hands-on approach to learning. He needed to see a real-world relevance to his education.
As a result, he graduated from high school without much desire to continue on to college.
Today, through focused training and a credentialing program, he’s about to enter the workforce in a highly-skilled field that provides lucrative pay, without a traditional four-year university degree — and he’s only 19.
I became more deeply involved in this issue as part of my participation in the inaugural class of the Colorado Governor’s Fellowship Program last year. That experience prompted me to seek an appointment to the Colorado Workforce Development Council so I could continue to promote the importance of educational pathways for Colorado’s youth and make a difference for young people like my son.
A business-education partnership
The good news is that progress is already being made on this front.
Non-traditional models are popping up that provide students with learning experiences that will prepare them for highly-skilled jobs in areas of need. Careerwise is one such program, founded in Colorado, with elements based off the Swiss apprenticeship system. Careerwise offers high school students paid apprenticeships where they spend two to three days a week getting hands- on experience in an in-demand field. Skillful is another local example, which promotes building a skills-based labor market with job-ready skills and helps employers find the qualified candidates they need.
We’ve also seen the proliferation of boot-camp-style learning in the tech industry, where students can acquire coding or other technical skills and be job-ready within months. Business is helping out more directly too, collaborating with educators in ways they haven’t in the past, such as Home Depot’s pledge of $50 million to train construction workers.
There is still a long way to go, both in Colorado and nationwide, but there is a lot to be proud of as well. Innovative workforce development efforts are helping students — like my son — gain real- world skills and achieve meaningful careers, while simultaneously helping businesses source and train the workforce they need to grow for the future.
Kristin Todd is Senior Vice President at the Daniels Fund and was a participant in the Colorado Governors Fellowship Program. She was appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper to serve on the Colorado Workforce Development Council.