After donning the cap and gown, what comes next for high school graduates?

Completing high school is a major milestone for students, but a high school diploma is no longer the academic finish line. For today's competitive job market, a high school diploma is merely a prerequisite for the next educational endeavor. Today's high school graduates have several options for higher education outside the typical four-year college.

Skyrocketing college tuition and fees within the past few decades, referred to as the "college cost crisis," has caused American students and families to question if studying at a traditional university and earning a bachelor's degree is the only veritable route to take. Hiring freezes, employer budget cuts and the unemployment epidemic following the Great Recession has left recent college grads jobless or underemployed with colossal student loan debt.

Earlier this year, USA Today called the job outlook for 2014 college grads "puzzling."1 Young people continue to face a slow economic recovery, despite reports of increased job availability and drops in unemployment rates. The Economic Policy Institute released a report in May that read, "The class of 2014 will be the sixth consecutive graduating class to enter the labor market during a period of profound weakness."

Value of the Skilled-Trades Worker

Amid this uncertain job outlook, the skilled-trades sector is struggling to find qualified workers, particularly for jobs in manufacturing and construction. According to a report from the ManpowerGroup, this skills gap is predicted to become even more acute as an aging labor force faces retirement. Who will fill these in-demand jobs?

High school graduates may not envision a future as professional tradesmen, yet 49 percent of Americans work in a grey-collar position. States like North Dakota, Arizona and Texas have prevalent grey-collar jobs as well as high job growth. Grey-collar jobs are on the rise in states like Texas, California and Illinois as well.2 Iowa identified a gap in qualified workers to fill middle-skilled jobs; a 2013 report by the Iowa Workforce Development found middle-skilled trades make up 55 percent of Iowa jobs, whereas only 33 percent of Iowa workers actually possess the skills needed to perform these jobs.3twitter-bird-3

This discrepancy calls for a new generation of tradesmen and women, and promotion of the skilled trades. The poor perception of these types of jobs-that they are somehow less valuable and esteemable than careers that require a four-year degree-has crippled both the industry as a whole and the local companies lacking qualified candidates to fill their open positions.

Educators can help dispel the stereotypes associated with grey-collar jobs and create awareness about these available and secure professions, which include electrical technicians, machinery operators, welders and machine tool setters. Steven Schneider, a school counselor at Sheboygan South High School and former American School Counselor Association board member, agrees; he told USA Today that schools need to emphasize the other paths and options that are available today, besides traditional four-year colleges. If school professionals can convey to students how workforce training creates employability and a competitive advantage in the labor market, they can help mitigate the skills gap, employ a population of non-traditional students and support the national economy.

Job Training & Skilled-Trades Preparation

Career colleges, technical institutes and apprenticeship programs are designed to provide students with the specific training and knowledge to work at local companies as skilled tradesmen. Educators should foster awareness around this in-demand employment sector to pique interest in high school students who are unsure about their future pursuits. Unless school professionals advocate grey-collar professions, students don't know they can pursue these lucrative careers. The employment sector especially needs qualified workers with specialized training and skill sets in the following five careers:

     - Civil construction and technology: Our country's cities and towns never stop changing, which is why skilled workers in infrastructure design and construction are essential. Civil engineering technicians are involved with the development of highways, buildings, structures, bridges, water systems and sewage systems. Trainees should enroll in a rigorous program offering practical applications. Classroom and real-world experience will prepare trainees to work with construction, engineering and architectural firms.4

     - Electrician: Electricians comprise the largest skilled-trades group, with more than 600,000 U.S. jobs, according to EMSI.5 Electricians also rank as number 13 on Forbes' list of 20 high-paying blue-collar jobs. The average annual salary of an electrician is $52,910, and the average hourly wage is $25.44. The top 10 percent can earn an annual pay of $82,680.6 With such employment opportunity and solid income, the electrician profession is a highly promising career choice. 

     - Allied Health: Allied health professionals work directly or indirectly, independently or as part of a health care team, to evaluate and assess patient health needs. Allied health professions can encompass about 200 careers, including dental hygiene, dietetics, health administration, occupational therapy, respiratory therapy and more. Two broad categories include technicians (or assistants) who are trained in less than two years to perform procedures under the supervision of therapists or technologists, according to Therapists or technologists undergo more intensive educational training in patient evaluation, diagnosis of conditions and treatment plans.

     - Cosmetology: Cosmetology and hairdressing professions have a projected job growth of 13 percent from 2012 to 2022 as the demand for personal-service jobs remains stable. In addition, there are 220,600 annual hairdresser, hair stylist and cosmetologist job openings, and by 2022, 688,700 jobs will exist in the hairdressing and cosmetology industries in the U.S., according to information shared by Toni & Guy Hairdressing Academy. And not only is cosmetology a secure field, it's also an ideal industry for creative expression.8,9

     - Culinary Arts: Culinary art professionals specialize in cooking and arranging palatable food, also seen as edible art. Culinary artists, culinarians and chefs create food that's both pleasing to the tastebuds and aesthetically pleasing. Along with food preparation, the profession encompasses menu planning, restaurant management and overseeing a restaurant's operation. Aspiring culinary artists and chefs refine cooking skills and earn a degree at a culinary art institute or even online culinary school.10

Noteworthy trade programs initiating and inspiring momentum to bolster the skilled-trades sector include:

     - The Hobart Institute of Welding Technology11: The Hobart Institute of Welding Technology is a nine-month program that teaches students about structural steel and pipe welding. Undertaking hands-on training, students spend more than 1,000 hours practicing metal fusing. Students also work with complicated alloys and can enroll in an advanced pipe layout class. One of the top welding programs in the nation since 1930, the school graduates about 300 students annually, and 83 percent graduate with a job. 

     - Pipeline Programs: A pipeline program is designed for students pursuing careers in medicine and medical research, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.12 Hostos Community College devised the Allied Health Career Pipeline Program to help more than 900 low-income individuals receive public assistance to pursue a healthcare career. The program operates enhanced allied health training and an internship program to help trainees become health professionals such as patient care or pharmacy technicians, certified nurse assistants and community health workers.13 The Hostos pipeline program even provides supportive services like childcare, transportation assistance and tutoring to help students achieve their long-term career goals.

     - Commercial Diving Academy: Commercial diving earned the number seven spot on Forbes' list of highest paid blue-collar jobs with an average annual salary of $58,640. Commercial divers specialize in industrial construction, including the inspection, repair, removal, installation and testing of underwater equipment and structures. The Commercial Diving Academy (CDA) Technical Institute, the premier dive school in America, invites prospective divers to learn more about a career as a commercial diver with a virtual story adventure that users navigate on the institute's website. This innovative online tool provides informational details about commercial diving careers as an entertaining, interactive comic.14,15

These three trade programs exemplify how implementing real-world work experience into classroom curriculum, designing a healthcare career program targeted to low-income individuals and attracting prospective trainees with an innovative online tool can engage students uncertain about a career path.

Not only do skilled trades provide career certainty and opportunity, trade industries are extensive and varied. Skilled trades can range from cosmetology school to a commercial truck driving apprenticeship. For example, about 44 percent of hair stylists, beauticians and cosmetologists are self-employed, which creates minimal risk and job stability while building a loyal clientele and following a creative passion.16


On the other end of the spectrum, trucking jobs are in high demand as trucking companies face qualified driver shortages, reports CNNMoney. David Heller, director of safety and policy for the Truckload Carriers Association, said that in 2012, there were 200,000 long haul trucking job openings. And in addition to the 1.5 million professional drivers on the road in 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 330,100 more trucking jobs (20 percent increase) will be added between 2010 and 2020. Not to mention, the top 10 percent of truck drivers can earn more than $58,000 annually.17

From Career College to Long-Term Career

To match in-demand skilled-trade jobs with highly qualified workers who have the proper skill set, academic leaders and influential educators need to showcase the level of opportunity for nontraditional students embarking on higher education. Debunk the myths and dislodge the perceptions of grey and blue-collar jobs and skilled trades.

Students who engage in skills-based training and hands-on learning for a specific career can then shape themselves into appealing job candidates with immediate employment opportunities. Not only are these types of jobs available, but they provide a steady and sufficient income and a long-term career. And it all starts with a high school diploma while providing students with exciting, suitable options to choose from.

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Resources: Photo1; Photo2 (1) Job outlook for 2014 college grads puzzling (2) Penn Foster infographic (3) Skilled trades employers fight 'dirty jobs' stereotype (4) Civil Technology (5) America's Skilled Trades Dilemma: Shortages Loom As Most-In-Demand Group Of Workers Ages (6) 20 High-Paying Blue-Collar Jobs: No 13 Electricians (7) Allied Health Professions Overview (8) Barbers, Hairdressers, and Cosmetologists (9) 39 Hairdressing Career Statistics You Have To See To Believe (10) Get a Taste of a Culinary Art Career (11) Welders, America Needs You (12) Pipeline and Outreach Programs (13) Allied Health Career Pipeline Program (14) 20 High-Paying Blue-Collar Jobs: No. 7 Commercial Divers (15) Commercial Diving Academy  (16) 2012-2013 Beautician and Hair Stylist Job Outlook (17) Tons of trucking jobs ... that nobody wants