Guest Column

Are jobs in skilled/professional trades attractive enough?

September 8, 2017
| By Lou Glazer |
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Conventional wisdom is one of the main culprits in the so-called skill shortage is that all Michigan kids are being pushed to get a four-year degree. I am quite skeptical that is accurate. (See the New York Times article entitled “College is the Goal. Will these three teenagers get there?” about college counseling at a Topeka, Kansas, high school for what is a far more likely portrayal of how nonaffluent kids are advised about whether to pursue a four-year degree or not.)

Far more likely is kids growing up in affluent households are being told by most of the adults in their lives that they need to get a four-year degree. But, by and large, they are the only kids getting that message. Most kids growing up in nonaffluent households — those in the bottom three-quarters of income — rarely and/or inconsistently get that message from the adults in their lives. And when they go to make a decision about what path they will pursue after high school, they are being pushed far more often than conventional wisdom has dictated not to pursue a four-year degree. If anything, they are pushed into the skilled/professional trades rather than getting a four-year degree no matter what their qualifications or interest.

What is clear in the data is that even if all kids are being pushed into getting a four-year degree, it is not working. The pattern is consistent with the suggested messaging above. Kids in affluent schools overwhelmingly pursue four-year degrees, those in nonaffluent high schools not so much.

Let’s start with the overall data, which comes from the state’s mischooldata.org database. For the graduating class of 2015, 41.2 percent of all Michigan high school graduates had enrolled in a four-year college within 12 months; 28.4 percent had enrolled in a community college; and 30.4 percent had not enrolled in college.

For all of Kent County for the graduating class of 2015, 40.6 percent of all high school graduates had enrolled in a four-year college within 12 months; 27.7 percent had enrolled in a community college; and 31.7 percent had not enrolled in college.

For all of Ottawa County for the graduating class of 2015, 48.5 percent of all high school graduates had enrolled in a four-year college within 12 months; 20.0 percent had enrolled in a community college; and 31.5 percent had not enrolled in college.

Now, let’s look at the difference in enrollment between affluent and nonaffluent high schools. In Kent County, I looked at an affluent high school, a nonaffluent suburban high school and a nonaffluent rural high school. All are predominantly white to take race as an excuse/explanation off the table. There is nothing representative about the high schools I picked. They represent my perception of the high schools. If you don't believe the pattern below is representative, I encourage you to look at high schools you think are more representative.

At East Grand Rapids High School, 77.2 percent of 2015 graduates enrolled in a four-year college within 12 months; 13.8 percent enrolled in a community college; 8.9 percent did not enroll in a college.

At Comstock Park High School, 35.5 percent of 2015 graduates enrolled in a four-year college within 12 months; 32.2 percent enrolled in a community college; 32.2 percent did not enroll in a college.

At Sparta High School, 33.5 percent of 2015 graduates enrolled in a four-year college within 12 months; 24.6 percent enrolled in a community college; 41.9 percent did not enroll in a college.

Finally, let’s look at college completion rates. The six-year graduation rates for the high school class of 2010 are:

  • All of Kent County: 30.4 percent four-year degrees; 8.0 percent associate degree or certificate
  • All of Ottawa County: 33.7 percent four-year degrees; 6.5 percent associate degree or certificate
  • East Grand Rapids High School: 62.2 percent four-year degrees; 5.2 percent associate degree or certificate
  • Comstock Park High School: 21.4 percent four-year degrees; 7.2 percent associate degree or certificate
  • Sparta High School: 24.6 percent four-year degrees; 11.9 percent associate degree or certificate

Looking at the data, it sure seems like one can make a much stronger case that if West Michigan high school graduates are not pursuing jobs in the skilled/professional trades at the scale that employers need, it has far more to do with those jobs not being attractive to the majority of West Michigan kids who are not pursuing a four-year degree rather than all kids being pushed to get a four-year degree.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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