Academic and Career Planning – A K-12 Necessity

Student loan debt sits today at about $1.3 trillion. Studies show that many 30-40 year old college graduates will have a lower standard of living than their parents and are not able to purchase homes because of one thing – student loan debt. Seventy percent of all jobs require a two-year degree or less, yet we dangle the mantra that career and academic success ride on the attainment of that proverbial four-year Bachelor’s degree. In other words, we are encouraging our students to mortgage their futures for a college degree that might not be necessary. Why?

The annual Manpower Talent Shortage Survey lists the top 10 jobs companies cannot fill. Most require an education level of a two-year degree or less. A University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee skills gap report shows that 70% of prospective job openings in Wisconsin through 2020 will require an education level of a high school diploma or less, and then goes on to say, “even if every unemployed person were perfectly matched to existing jobs, over 2/3 of all jobless would still be out of work.” Why?

When I speak to high school career planning classes, I ask if anyone is considering a two-year degree, diploma, or apprenticeship. Five to six percent of the students respond with a “yes.” The rest of the students indicate they are looking at colleges offering four-year degrees. We then whiteboard their career areas of interest. Ninety-five percent of them would require only a two-year degree or less to enter their chosen field. Only 7 to 9% of high school graduates go on to a technical college. The average age of a technical college student is 30. Why?

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In Milwaukee, certain demographic populations have unemployment rates between 30 and 50%. Employers are starved for skilled employees. Technical colleges cannot attract enough students to meet the industry demand for skilled workers, and enrollments are down over 10% at Wisconsin technical colleges. Why?

For years we have told students to stay out of the trades, factories, customer service, and information technology careers because they were being outsourced or they were dead end positions. They all now reside at the top of the Manpower Talent Shortage Survey. We tell our children throughout their K-12 years that you need a college degree to be successful. You even hear, “in the future, every job will require a college degree” even though the data does not support that. Why?

Students choose careers for the wrong reasons. Their father was an accountant; it looked cool on television; it pays big bucks – not because it matches their personal interests and attributes. My classes are full of students with college degrees that did not like their career choice or now need the hands-on skills in order to get a job they did not get with their existing degree. That is nothing but foolish and very expensive! Seventy percent of all American employees go to work every day to a job they dislike. Why?

As standalone sound bites, the statements above are just that, but when you string them together they take on an entirely different context. Why are we pushing our children to get four-year college degrees when the majority of the current and future jobs will require an education level of a two-year degree or less? We all assume that a four-year college degree will be a badge of success, but for many, it will be a ball and chain that they will drag around with them for life.

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We need to rethink the whole notion of higher education, its value, and who really needs it. Not everyone needs formal education after high school. We need to look at the career and academic planning processes used by our schools to make sure parents, students, and counselors really understand the educational and career landscape, their options, costs, and time frames. We need to make sure students know which careers match their personal attributes and encourage them to pursue careers in these areas. Students should understand the job market, which careers are in high demand, and which have longevity. Today’s graduates will work over 50 years before they can retire. We need industry to step up and invest in more internship, job shadowing, and student sponsorship opportunities that target areas with high unemployment and high schools where students have been literally brainwashed since kindergarten that a four-year college was their only hope for success.

Finally, students need to understand the concept of a career pathway: starting with a two-year degree or diploma, gaining work experience, obtaining further education (preferably employer paid), taking on more responsibility within the workforce, making more money, and on it goes. It is called life-long learning. Remember, it does not matter what kind of degree you have or where it is from – if you have no experience, you start at the entry level position, as no one starts at the top. Therefore, target the minimum education needed in order to obtain an entry level job within a field that matches your personality and interests. Do not drink excessively from the student loan well, and do not over educate yourself.

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