Training students for skills that pay

Working at The Daily Tar Heel, one often hears a great deal about the plight of the modern journalism student. But I was shocked to learn that starting salaries for graduates of the J-School, as they like to call it, are often considerably less than those of plumbers, electricians and mechanics. Despite what we were told in high school, apparently a college degree doesn’t guarantee a higher income.

A little research on the subject provided me some quick answers and led me to a thesis that is likely to ruffle more than a few feathers in South Building: North Carolina’s singular focus on sending students to four-year colleges is hurting our economy and the people of this state.
Despite an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent, North Carolina is in desperate need of blue-collar workers like plumbers, electricians and elevator mechanics.

Though these “middle-skill” jobs certainly require training beyond high school, they don’t require a liberal arts degree from UNC. Instead, our state needs to provide more vocational training through its community colleges.

Employers are looking to fill thousands of these positions but are unable to because of a lack of qualified applicants. To give you an idea of the scope of the problem, more lawyers graduated from UNC School of Law last year than plumbers did from the entire North Carolina community college system.

Middle-skill jobs are not the mundane, low-paying careers many fear, but rather real, viable alternatives for many students in the UNC system. Starting pay often exceeds $50,000 per year. Meanwhile, 12.3 percent of UNC’s 2011 graduates are still seeking employment.

These are the traditional, well-paying middle-class careers that make up 51 percent of North Carolina’s workforce. These jobs built the middle class that helped define America after WWII. And yet only 43 percent of North Carolinians are sufficiently trained to do these jobs.

No, they are not glamorous, but they are critical to our society, and we should value them. Our focus on four-year degrees and white-collar employment has stigmatized traditional blue-collar occupations and is killing the cultural tradition of apprenticeship and training that helped make America great.

North Carolina’s higher education system is perpetuating this gap by failing to meet the middle-skill employment needs of employers while encouraging residents toward careers that require more expensive four-year degrees —a move that often puts students and families in debt.

Enrollment in North Carolina’s four-year institutions is at near-record levels but an excess supply of these graduates is leaving many with difficulty connecting their college skills to those needed by employers.

It’s time North Carolina begins encouraging students to consider all of their education opportunities rather than just those attained from four-year institutions.

A vibrant and strong middle class is in the best interest of all North Carolinians, and it’s time our state begins placing a renewed focus on the technical jobs and skills that will make a vibrant middle-class and state economy possible.

Ian Lee is a Senior business and political science major from Cary. Contact him at ianwlee@live.unc.edu

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