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For many Americans, "higher education" still means a four-year degree. However, with unemployment hovering around 5.5 percent and with many students graduating from four-year institutions unable to find jobs, our perception of the costs and benefits of education needs to change. Degrees that prepare students for middle-skilled careers are often ignored or rejected, but education leaders need to realize that, as valuable as four-year degrees may be, they are not practical for every student, especially given that these students are saddled with an average of $26,600 of debt overall,1 and $32,700 when graduating from for-profit colleges.2

Jobs traditionally known as "middle-skilled" will make up nearly half of all openings in the next 10 years,3 and yet there is a lack of infrastructure, support, and data to help middle-skill workers navigate the market to discover and attain these jobs. As a result, too many middle-skill workers are enrolling in four-year degree programs instead of gaining career-oriented training that would allow them instant access to the workforce. This inefficiency is increasing student debt and widening a middle-skills job gap, where students fail to meet the needs of employers who want to hire them.

Like their white-collar counterparts, employers in middle-skilled career fields want their applicants to be job-ready. They do not want to have to spend large amounts of money training their employees. They want an employee equipped with both practical and relevant theoretical knowledge. That's where blended learning approaches come into play, allowing students to combine in-class hands-on instruction with online learning, contributing to increased productivity among students and reduced costs for institutions.

Penn Foster is helping to close the "skills gap" with a variety of programs that give students access to equipment and first rate instruction in high-growth industries. Our engineering technology program, which prepares students for careers in manufacturing, is just one example. Despite well-documented shifts in the manufacturing industry, there is a dire need for new manufacturing professionals. In March 2016, there were 337,000 manufacturing job openings, but only 244,000 hires, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And these jobs generally pay well: sheet metal workers earn a median salary of $45,750 and Diesel service technicians and mechanics earn a median salary of $44,520.4 Considering that these careers do not require four years of post-secondary schooling, they represent a favorable return on investment.

Trade and Technical Schools: Meeting the Needs of a Growing Market

Changing labor market requirements have encouraged job seekers to choose vocational courses rather than apprenticeships and on-the-job training. Furthermore, the increasing cost of four-year colleges has caused some to seek alternative forms of education. Demand for healthcare professions will also provide a significant boost to the industry in particular. As the U.S. population ages, demand for medical technicians and nurse's aides will bolster the revenue of training schools. Downstream demand is expected to remain strong for workers in most trades, and increasing requirements for workers to hold formal certification will aid industry growth.

Instead of ignoring middle-skilled careers, we need to embrace them as viable alternatives to traditional degrees that lead to high-demand careers, and ensure that associated education costs remain affordable and aligned with salary potential.

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Resources: (1) The Institute for College Access & Success (2) The For-Profit Higher Education Industry, By the Numbers (3) United States' Forgotten Middle (4) Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook