For the better part of the last 60 years, Americans have been led to believe that the most viable path into a middle-class career is with a four-year degree and with it, thousands of dollars in accrued debt.
Between 2020 and 2030, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that about 60% of new jobs in the economy will be in occupations that don’t typically require an associate’s, bachelor’s, or graduate degree. According to BLS, many of these jobs will be in construction, energy, transportation, equipment repair, as health care technicians and other occupations where most median wage rates already exceed national averages and don’t require workers to accrue college debt to qualify.
Yet since 1960, college enrollment amongst recent high school graduates has steadily grown from 45% to as high as 70%. And in every year since 1990, more than 60% of recent high school graduates were enrolled, effectively accruing debt for the purpose of competing for a comparatively smaller pool of available or emerging jobs.
This construct has had two clear winners. The first group has been non-instructional higher education administrators, like chancellors and provosts, who grew at five times the rate of professors and instructors over the last forty years. The other winner, of course, is loan servicers, as student debt in this country has more than tripled over the past fifteen years to more than $1.75 trillion.
We need to restore balance to the labor market and meet the labor force needs that BLS is projecting for in-demand industries. However, the path is not to relax child labor laws or to fill demanding jobs with individuals who lack basic qualifications. It is to level with our kids when they consider their options after high school.
We need to tell them that college is not always the best career pathway. Apprenticeships, for example, are debt-free career training institutions that have been attaching workers to middle class careers in the construction industry for generations. In Minnesota, the research shows that graduates of the “joint” apprenticeship programs responsible for training more than 90% of our state’s skilled craft workers earn average wages of approximately $35/hr., on par with the average college graduate, plus the added benefits of health insurance and a pension. From carpentry to operating heavy machinery, it is important, challenging work that neither our communities nor our economy can function without.
Americans, it seems, are suffering from a collective amnesia about what fueled the greatest expansion of the middle class in our nation’s history after WWII. It was not the ivory towers so much as it was the blue collar professions that employed returning warriors and offered new opportunities to those that had previously been left behind, or in the public works projects whose skilled craft workers created a foundation for new communities and industries to emerge and sparked America’s emergence as a global superpower.
With the passage in the federal infrastructure law, the inflation reduction act, and the CHIPS and Science Act — alongside trillions in matching investments from state and local governments, private developers, energy producers, technology companies and so many others, America is poised to begin a new golden era that will deliver a new middle class. And it is putting trillions of dollars behind the endeavor.
But if we keep telling every kid that a college degree paid for with mountains of debt is the only way to seize a slice of the American dream, we risk ceding this new, golden era to other nations that prioritize career training over the “college or bust” definition of “higher education” that has taken hold here in the U.S.
For the foreseeable future, our state and nation will be undergoing an economic transition. Filling the jobs created by more sophisticated IT, manufacturing and healthcare systems will demand workers with practical skills and hands-on experience, not just classroom training. We’ll need to build and maintain millions of housing units, rebuild thousands of miles of road and thousands more bridges. We’ll modernize ports, airports, and transit systems so we can more efficiently and effectively move people and goods. New broadband, telecommunications and energy system infrastructure will be created to expand opportunity and security for more communities. We’re aiming to meet both our labor supply, and our materials needs for all of the above right here in America, in industries that have already developed institutions to provide job-ready skills training, family sustaining wages, and secure benefits.
Through apprenticeships, we have already developed the debt-free middle class pathways we need to meet this moment in construction. Other industries need to join us. And, if we choose to promote and celebrate these pathways with the same enthusiasm as we would a liberal arts degree whose costs often run well into the six figures, we can start seeing declines in college enrollment less as a five alarm fire, and more like an opportunity to reimagine career training and workforce development in a way that meets the needs of the 21st century economy and restores the American middle class.
Tim Worke is the chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. Jason George is the business manager/financial secretary for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49. Both serve as directors for the Minnesota Construction Industry Labor & Employers Council (CILEC)