Tonawanda News

April 30, 2013

CONFER: Choosing a trade over college, part II

By Bob Confer
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — When I was in high school some 20-plus years ago, BOCES was considered a dumping ground; those who pursued the vocational arts were looked at – by school administrators, parents, and peers alike — as sub-par students, kids who weren’t bright enough to hack the standard path of high school education, let alone the rigors of college. Times have changed and vocational education has become more acceptable to mainstream education but, still, a lot of today’s parents who were educated during that era still carry some long-held (and totally unacceptable) disdain for the program.

I would argue that today’s BOCES students – as well as those of my time – are some of the very brightest that we have. It takes a special collection of intelligence, common sense, and learning ability to excel in the breadth of knowledge and skills required by machining, mechanics, nursing, computers and the like.

They are also some of the brightest because they understand the future and their role in it.

As I mentioned in last week’s column, a lot of their college-interested friends have a troublesome future ahead of them because the job market has seen a saturation of college educated workers and it cannot accommodate them, leading to underemployment, unemployment and the unfortunate situation in which college-educated adults face a lower standard of living than their college-educated parents before them. On the other hand, teens and young adults who develop vocational skills see immediate rewards, long-term gain, and stability through even the worst economies because they are marketable, in demand, and in relatively low supply.

A perfect example would be machinists. Their prospects are overwhelming: Numerous studies have found that upwards of a half-million manufacturing jobs across the United States remain unfilled due to the lack of qualified candidates. As for being “qualified,” a college degree doesn’t cut it – but a certificate from a trade school does.

High school seniors who took machining at BOCES are guaranteed a job immediately upon graduation and, in most cases, were claimed by area machine shops and factories in their junior year. A BOCES machining graduate, fresh out of school, could command a starting pay in the range of $15 to $20 per hour throughout the northeast, more if he left the area.

Teens who pursue nursing at BOCES, either in high school or afterwards, in effort to become Licensed Practical Nurses, also face a welcoming job market. Due to the aging baby boomer population and the stress it places on the health industry, there will be a nursing shortage over the next decade and beyond when demand is expected to outstrip supply.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, LPNs at the lowest 10% of the wage scale earn $14.89/hour, while the median wage rate is a smidge under $20. Those wages are expected to rise as the health sector changes. Plus, the role of LPN is often used as a stepping stone for those looking to become registered nurses, who bring in a median wage in excess of $31.

We can’t forget truck drivers, either. Although commercial driver licenses aren’t offered as a part of curriculum to high school students, most BOCES offer them to adults. A high school graduate who invests just $2,500 to $4,000 into a CDL will find himself with opportunity: there are currently 400,000 openings for CDL drivers nationally and that mismatch of supply versus demand will be in favor of the licensed drivers for the long haul as a good portion of truck drivers are entering their retirement years. Because of that, the starting salary for truck drivers ranges from $38,000 for local work to $45,000 for over-the-road haulers. Experienced long-distance drivers net $75,000 and many top out at $100,000.

So, it’s not surprising that the trade certificates earn just as much as – and, in most cases, even more than – college diplomas. Recent college grads earn an average of $16.81/hour, a value that has remained relatively flat over the past decade. Ongoing salary growth is restrained as well.

And, mind you, the College Board said that average cost nationally for an in-state public college is $22,261 per year. What did BOCES cost the high school pupil? A fraction of the cost of college, if anything at all. Even the CDL class ends up being one-eighth the cost of one year of college.

It should be obvious to teenagers and parents that vocational education shouldn’t be considered an afterthought. It’s arguably a better choice than college.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. He also writes for the New American at TheNewAmerican.com. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer and e-mail him at bobconfer@juno.com.