The Overlooked Solution to the Student Debt Crisis

We have 17 million Americans with bachelor's degrees doing menial work that doesn't require that level of education. Instead of trying to subsidize the cost of college, the focus should be on rejuvenating vocational education and skill-specific certificate programs.
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Just 23, Katie will start paying off her $40,000 student loan in September - with no job prospects on the horizon. "If I could turn back time I would consider not going to college," she says. "I could have focused elsewhere, started a job right away, and not be $40,000 in debt with interest growing every month."

Each year, almost 2 million students graduate from college. Many leave with few job opportunities and an average of $26,600 in debt. Given this, it's not surprising that there is now more student debt in America than credit card debt.

Nevertheless, despite President Obama's rhetorical support for vocational training, in 2012 the federal government spent over $166 billion on student aidand over $14 billion on tax benefits for college students alone -- but only $1 billion on vocational education.

All this to end up with 17 million Americans with bachelor's degrees doing menial work that doesn't require that level of education. Instead of trying to subsidize the cost of college, the focus should be on rejuvenating vocational education and skill-specific certificate programs. So what's stopping us?

For one, the stigma surrounding vocational education has been growing for decades. These programs have ostensibly become the option for those who can't make it academically. Despite the reality that new technologies in clean energy and manufacturing are creating new, well-paying jobs, we still live in a society that places a high value on college degrees and still considers manual work to be of lower status. And that stigma often starts at home, with parents.

As a result, the country is facing a widening "skills gap" between those entering the workforce and the technical jobs that companies need to fill. For example, while 80 percent of the 3,000 person workforce needed to run the Toyota factory in San Antonio requires a high school diploma or less, the plant has never been able to fill 100 percent of its available jobs. On the macroeconomic level, manufacturers reported last year that, at a time when more than 12 million American were unemployed, they could not fill as many as 600,000 jobs because workers lacked the skills to perform them. In fact, the scarcity of skilled labor in the United States has been cited by foreign companies as a reason for holding back on direct investment.

The solution is complex, but not impossible, to achieve. One part of it is about removing the stigma, in schools and families. There is a perceived distinction between preparing students to be career-ready, with employable skills, and preparing them to be global, well-rounded citizens, with critical thinking skills -- but the two are not actually mutually exclusive. We must convey to both rising students and displaced workers that, to the contrary, many vocational training programs lead to sophisticated work, rather than dirty, mind-numbing labor, as was the case 30 years ago. Today's technical jobs require not only hands-on skills, but also the ability to troubleshoot, adapt, innovate, synthesize data, and communicate effectively.

A prime example is Matthew Tabor, who received training in welding in high school beginning in the 10th grade. "It was one of the most valuable skills I learned in my public K-12 education and it was not training which I had access to or could otherwise afford outside of school," he says. "I spent weekends learning fine woodworking and during the week augmented that with metalworking in my school's technology department. I was able to begin working literally within 48 hours after my high school graduation because of those classes."

Unfortunately, Matt's experience is not the norm; we need to improve the delivery of vocational education. The potential for growth is already here; more than 90 percent of high school graduates take at least one occupational course, and about 40 percent of students take at least three full-year courses. These have not translated into motivated participation, largely because most institutions have outdated equipment and few partnerships exist to ensure degrees earned actually align with industry-based certifications and in-demand skills.

Fostering more partnerships between educational institutions, government, and companies looking to hire is, in my view, the real key to creating a more thriving vocational education system. Many industrialized countries, as well as some American localities, have successfully implemented the career-apprenticeship model. This system allows students to apply for a two- or three-year program with a private company in which they typically spend three or four days a week at work learning practical skills, and one or two days a week learning theoretical and critical thinking skills in the classroom.

There is already an economic incentive for both sides. Studies have shown that high school students who graduate from these programs earn, on average, 11 percent more than their counterparts who end up in the same field. In addition, the apprenticeship program benefits businesses that are hesitant to train current employees due to reduced output during the training period and the risk of not getting a return on their investment.

Lastly, a complementary piece to the puzzle is the inclusion of curriculum tailored towards earning an industry certification. Unlike certificate programs or degrees, which only guarantee a certain amount of time spent learning the industry, certifications are only earned when one has demonstrated a sufficient level of knowledge in the area. In addition, some certifications (such as the NABCEP Certification for solar installation professionals) require specific amounts of training and on-the-job experience before the exam can be taken, making them uniquely compatible with apprenticeship programs.

The "skills gap" can no longer be ignored, or simply added to existing political rhetoric. All stakeholders must participate: Government must close the funding gap between college aid and vocational training to allow schools to purchase state-of-the art equipment and convey the importance of vocational training. Businesses must take a leap of faith that financially supporting vocational education will lead to a better pool of talent for everyone. And finally, parents and society at large must recognize that the jobs that vocational education lead to today are both well-paying and rewarding.

The evidence is clear: in order to maintain global competitiveness tomorrow, we must start to train our workforce for technical skills today.

Avi Yashchin is the CEO of CleanEdison, a vocational education company that focuses on the clean energy industry. An outspoken advocate for clean technology, building science, and skills training, Avi applies his expertise in finance to provide innovative solutions for underserved populations looking to enter the clean energy industry. Prior to founding CleanEdison, Avi spent seven years in finance where he served as Vice President in the Global Credit Products group at a major investment bank.

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