Guest Column: A four-year college education is not for everyone

By Michael Sears

People in Rockford and across our great nation want to get back to work. Sounds simple enough, but I believe our educational system is over-thinking the subject.

Let’s face the fact that, unlike what our educators would like us to believe, those who graduate from high school are not all going to continue on to a college or university. Some of these graduates are either not interested or cannot afford this option (the national average of debt for a 2013 college graduate is $35,000, according to CNN).

The facts are, a four-year college education is not for everyone, and these individuals will enter the work force without a bachelor’s, master’s or Ph.D. So, you wonder, how will these individuals survive, purchase a home, automobile and raise families? How about trade schools and apprenticeships?

I’m not anti-college. If you can afford it, by all means, go for it. But I reject the idea that a four-year school is the best path for most people and encourage students to understand the options available to them.

When I was attending high school in the late 1970s, Rockford Public Schools had a vocational and trades program known as VOTECH. VOTECH was on Samuelson Road next to Jefferson High School, which is now a satellite campus for Rock Valley College after District 205 decided the good citizens no longer had a need for this type of educational alternative.

VOTECH offered opportunities for all area high school students to learn skills required to secure good-paying jobs without a four-year degree in such fields as carpentry, plumbing, electrical, welding, automotive repair, electronics and nursing, to name a few. Local businesses would hire from this program with the confidence that these graduates would have good knowledge and skills for entry-level positions.

I am reminded of a story my father told me about a young man who attended West High School with him in the mid-1950s. This young man was in a trade-based high school before his family moved to Rockford from Germany. This young man received the traditional education most high schools offered, but was also trained to be a master plumber — all by the time he was ready to graduate at the young age of 18. This was common practice in Germany and not the exception. I would venture to guess this is why Germany is world renowned to be the pinnacle of craftsmanship and manufacturing.

What is my point? A four-year degree is great, but our economy still needs plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, welders, construction workers and skilled manufacturing trades.

I hear the arguments that greedy corporations and their shareholders have moved good-paying manufacturing jobs off U.S. soil and how many jobs would be available if these greedy corporations had kept manufacturing and technical jobs here. Yes, that is a very reasonable argument, but what makes you think those positions would be filled? Right now, in November 2013, in the manufacturing sector alone, 600,000 jobs are currently available. That’s 600,000 open positions that U.S. manufacturers can’t fill because of a lack of training and skills. This fact I can back up, as the company I work for in Belvidere has trouble filling positions that become available for skilled welders and machinists. Sure, we get a lot of applications, but most are vastly under-qualified.

If all the American corporations moved all their manufacturing facilities and factories back to the United States, we’d have a few million more openings to fill. I ask the question: Would Americans really rush to fill these spots? It’s not that simple. If it were, it would already be happening and we wouldn’t have a skills gap. But we do, and it’s getting wider every year.

The fact is, according to the government’s own numbers, more than 3 million jobs are available right now. Wouldn’t it make sense to fill those positions before we demand that these companies create more opportunities that people don’t aspire to fill?

We need to challenge the stigma and stereotypes surrounding “alternative education” and the ever-changing perception of what constitutes a “good job.” The value of apprenticeships (without the burden of organized labor holding us hostage) and trade schools should have a rightful place in society. Unions played an important purpose in making the workplace as safe as possible and how workers were treated, but now are just bloated, outdated and out of touch, much like our federal government.

I believe strongly in the values this country was founded upon and our Constitution, and am forever indebted to the unselfish men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice to keep this country the best damn place to live. Please, let’s not let them down.

Michael Sears is a Rockford resident.

From the Jan. 1-6, 2014, issue

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