Cynthia M. Allen

Graduates take note: there are good jobs without college degrees

It’s graduation time again, and there are lots of opportunities that don't require a bachelor's degree.
It’s graduation time again, and there are lots of opportunities that don't require a bachelor's degree. Special Willis Knight

It's that time of year.

Hundreds of thousands of mostly young people are on the cusp of graduation. In a few weeks time, they will flip their tassels and eagerly accept that thin, and very expensive, piece of paper that declares them knowledgeable about something and hopefully hirable.

For certain young people, completing college is an unprecedented achievement. Some of today's graduates will be the first in their families to earn four-year degrees. But for so many others, attending college is not a choice or a decision, but an expectation.

"Go to college. Get a bachelor's degree," that's the refrain that rings in the heads of high school students all over the country. And just over a third do. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 33.4 percent of Americans 25 or older said they had completed at least a bachelor’s degree — the highest percentage ever reported.

For many reasons, that may be viewed as a good thing.

Plenty of people who attend college reap its benefits over the years, enjoying higher salaries and increased job opportunities. Higher education can open doors, especially for those with limited resources.

But getting a degree isn't always all it's cracked up to be. Graduates frequently labor under crippling student debt that they'll spend decades repaying. And some — particularly more recent college graduates — struggle to find employment that matches their skill-sets.

A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute found that while the underemployment rate for young college graduates has recovered from it recession-level peak, 11 percent still find themselves either without work or working less than they'd like to be. And while wages for college grads have been steadily increasingly for several years, they're still well below wages during the last economic boom.

Part of the problem is that for many young people college is something they're simply supposed to do, and they make the decision — and a sizable financial investment — to attend college without considering what other stable, lucrative and plentiful opportunities await them.

Indeed, there are some 30 million jobs in the U.S. that pay an average of $55,000 per year and don't require a bachelor's degree, says the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. That includes more than 2.5 million such jobs in the state of Texas.

Texas has not only avoided the loss of many blue-collar jobs but has enjoyed a significant increase in good jobs in skilled-services industries, including manufacturing, construction, health services and financial activities. These types of high-paying skilled jobs — that don't require a B.A. — pay a median income of $57,000 in 2015 and have grown by 124 percent between 1991 and 2015.

That should help dispel the myth that the only path to financial stability is through a college campus and encourage more ambitious high school students to consider options other than the typical four-year college track.

In Texas, that doesn't seem to be. Skilled positions and trades professions are suffering from a dearth of available labor. "We are 20,000 construction workers short in DFW despite wages rising 35 percent for most needed trades," Phil Crone, head of the Dallas Builders Association, told the Dallas Morning News in January. The average construction workers are in their 40s, and recruiting young people to join the industry has been a challenge.

The middle-skills jobs gap bleeds into the healthcare and information technology industries, as well, where well-paying jobs critical to the local economy often sit vacant.

Of course, finding a job in the trades does not mean that education ends with high school. Most workers need additional training, certification, even an associate's degree to pursue a skilled profession. But community colleges and vocational schools come at a fraction of the cost of four-year universities and often offer grants and financial assistance as incentives.

And the return in good wages is often swifter than for those who pursue undergraduate degrees.

For a lot of young people there's a stigma to working as a skilled laborer and the misconception that it doesn't pay very well. That's unfortunate and also wrong.

High school students take note: right now, there may not be a better opportunity than a trade for a young person to get ahead early in life.

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