Student Debt 2013: Can Vocational Education Solve it?


To tackle the unemployment crisis in Europe, memoranda has been signed between Germany and Greece, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, Slovakia, and Spain to set up vocational education systems. Is it time for the U.S. to visit the idea of vocational education too?

Germany and Austria — the two European countries with the lowest youth unemployment rates — have dual-education systems where they combine part-time apprenticeships with formal schooling. The way it works is: Any students not interested in, or not qualified for, university can sign up for a program where they spend part of the week working for a firm that pays them one third of a trained workers salary, and the other half of the week learning the theory and practice of their interested occupation as well as other general subjects.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, 51.5% of German students chose this program over attending university.

The closest thing America has to vocational education is for-profit universities, trade schools and some community colleges. Unfortunately, many private companies are taking advantage of the for-profit market, creating programs that ultimately make students pay more with less job opportunities than the school promised. 

Even though there are about 5.6 million young people without a job and 4.7 million people who are underemployed or working in jobs they are overqualified for, there is still a lack of a skilled American workforce. According to a 2012 Talent Shortage Survey by Manpower Group, the top five jobs employers are having the most trouble filling are skilled trade workers, engineers, sales representatives, technicians, and IT staff. The top three reasons for not being able to find people to fill those positions: lack of available applicants/no applicants, lack of technical competencies (hard skills) and lack of experience. 

If there was a more concrete sect of our education system specially tailored to partnering employers with colleges and universities, then maybe businesses and companies could find the skilled employees they need. The Center on Education and the Workforce at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute investigated which college majors had the lowest and highest unemployment rates.

The 2013 report found nursing and elementary education majors to have the lowest unemployment rates and architecture and information systems to have the highest. When broken down into different fields of study, the report said, “Hiring tends to be slower for users of information compared to those who write programs and create software applications” within the computer and mathematics fields. Unemployment rates for humanities and liberal arts majors are high across the board, including such majors as anthropology and archeology (12.6%), English (9.8%) and history, philosophy and religious studies (9.5%). 

There must be an easier way to foster critical thinking and cultivate intellectual growth that a liberal arts education offers while also developing valuable working skills to a rapidly changing professional world. And while education costs continue to drown our students and their families in debt, the more appealing option may be a career (and its corresponding education) with a more certain future. 

An employer survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media's Marketplace blames college and universities for producing graduates who lack basic workplace skills such as adaptability, communication skills and problem-solving skills. Employers from all hiring roles also value experience more than academics including having internships and jobs during their time at college. 

When Phyllis M. Wise, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a vice president of the University of Illinois was asked by the Chronicle, “Should we be preparing students for the work force, or should we be preparing them for lifelong learning?” 

He said, “The answer is, ‘Yes.’”