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Where Federal Education Funds Should Really Be Going

Despite its affordability, its relevance to today's workforce needs, and its potential to curtail student debt and unemployment, vocational training continues to take a back seat to other educational avenues.
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Underestimated and underfunded, skills-based education remains dormant in the United States. Despite its affordability, its relevance to today's workforce needs, and its potential to curtail student debt and unemployment, vocational training continues to take a back seat to other educational avenues.

In the 2012-13 school year, more than $130 of federal funds was granted to post-secondary education. Meanwhile, government funding for workforce training and education programs equates to roughly 10% of that amount. For every ten dollars going to higher education, only one dollar goes to middle skills training. One would then expect the ratio of jobs requiring bachelor's degrees to jobs requiring vocational skills to be 10 to 1. The jobs ratio is actually closer to 2 to 7, showing a major mismatch of educational resources and job opportunities.

The Problem
The student loan debt crisis, which holds 71% of 2012's college graduates in its clutches, is a result of rising education costs, an attenuating job market, and the oversaturation of certain academic majors in the workforce. Secondary education has not caught up with the jobs economy. We have successfully funneled a drifting majority into the college classroom, which is misaligned with the needs of the labor market.

The skills gap refers to the gulf between job seekers and employers who need skilled workers, and it accounts for an estimated 60,000 unfilled jobs in the manufacturing sector alone. According to a Harvard University report, nearly 8 million jobs in the construction, manufacturing and natural resources industries will open up by 2018. Harvard also projects that, in 2018, only 33% of all jobs will require a 4-year degree, and 57% will be skills based jobs that require technical credentials and post-secondary training less than a bachelor's degree.

The Fix
Is it scandalous to claim that not everyone needs a university degree? When we look at some of the major trends swamping the American economy, like unemployment and student debt, the real scandal is how we neglect vocational education, even though it is a solution to both of these crises. Skilled labor could fill a bulk of vacant jobs, and a cohort of learners could be saved from the quicksand of student debt, if only we placed more importance, and more resources, on vocational training. But alas, vocational education programs don't seem to get the respect (read: funding) that they deserve.

Vocational training programs do not preclude a college education. In fact, professional licenses and certifications were found to lead to higher earnings both in combination with, and in the absence of, post-secondary degrees. Having an alternative credential, like LEED accreditation, is associated with an earnings premium for every level of educational achievement, with the exception of master's degree holders, according to a report by the US Census Bureau. So while my standpoint may sound averse to university degrees, it's not; it's simply asking for us to dedicate more public resources and respect for educational programs that better suit the needs of many students, and better suit the needs of the skilled economy.

The college degree dream is an unsuitable paradigm for the future of the American labor force. President Obama's plan to boost domestic innovation and reduce dependence on foreign production will only come about if we focus further resources on training Americans for the careers that need them. With apprenticeships, workforce training and professional certification courses that teach workers the skills they need now, we can reach a more appropriate proportion between middle skills education and the university degree system. The prevailing pursuit of the American dream has placed college degrees on a precarious pedestal. But as middle-skills become synonymous with the middle class, why shouldn't the American Dream include blue-collar work?