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No College Degree? No Problem: Why Education Policy Needs to Focus on Career Planning | Commentary

There is no doubt about it: Statistically speaking, a college degree will offer the average worker a significant wage premium over workers with only a high school diploma. But does that mean that workers with no education beyond high school do not have a chance at well-paying, fulfilling careers? Far from it.

According to a report by CareerBuilder, there are 115 occupations in America that pay $20 an hour or more — and only require a high school diploma. They include postal service carriers ($26.75/hour), real estate brokers ($29.48/ hour), power plant operators ($32.13/ hour), commercial pilots ($35.73/ hour) and transportation, storage and distribution managers ($39.27/ hour).

While a college education is not necessary for these positions, on-the-job training is another matter. Many of these positions require short- to long-term training on the job, while others require apprenticeships. Some also require previous work experience. But the fact remains that they do not require years of expensive college education.

The demand for jobs that require no more than a high school education is surprisingly high, and growing. The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University predicts that by 2020, 55 million jobs will open up in the economy. Breaking these 55 million new openings up by educational requirements, only 35 percent will require at least a bachelor’s degree and only 30 percent will require some college or an associate’s degree, while 36 percent will not require education beyond high school. Clearly, the U.S. economy has plenty of needs for those without higher education.

As I have travelled the country speaking with leaders in business, education, and policy, I see the rising demand for jobs that do not require a college degree as an opportunity for ambitious young workers who feel that college is not for them and who would not greatly benefit from the experience (or cost). These are not low-paying jobs or even low-skilled jobs — they are local opportunities that spur local economies and produce engaged, fruitful young members of society.

Progress has been slow, but I applaud Congress for passing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act as a step in the right direction towards closing the skills gap and bringing both educators and business leaders to the same table. I hope that as we welcome the 114th Congress in 2015 that this momentum continues to include policy that supports school guidance counselors and local career planning initiatives for middle and high school students. We cannot afford to allow another generation of graduates to enter into the workforce without the tools they need to make informed decisions about their futures.

At a time when students are submitting college applications and determining their next steps, Congressional leaders have a perfect opportunity to put a spotlight on the importance of career planning for young people. When members return home for recess, they need to work with local leaders and educators to market to young people the job opportunities available in their own backyards and the affordable training programs that will prepare them for the workforce.

We need to get away from the idea that there is only one route to profitable careers, namely, a four-year college degree. While higher education can be a great idea if you can afford the investment, students need to accurately determine whether or not their career of choice requires a college degree and, consequently, the cost of tuition. Young people today need to know that there are multiple options out there, and college is just one of them.

While university tuition continues to rise, young people should be aware of the many alternative options available to them. Community colleges, vocational programs, and massive open online classes can yield stunning returns at the fraction of the cost of university tuition. Additionally, old-fashioned, hands-on work experience can be the best education of all.

Our leaders need to be honest about the fact that college is not right for everyone, and young people should know that they can still be valuable and desirable to the workforce regardless of where their skills and knowledge have been developed.

David Pattinson is the founder and CEO of David Pattinson’s American Future, a youth unemployment advocacy nonprofit focused on helping America’s youth connect with the career planning resources necessary to alleviate the increasing rate of post-graduate unemployment and underemployment.

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