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A Two-Year Career Path

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Two recent education reports underscore the pressing need for a new paradigm for education and training of our young people to prepare them to be productive members of society. One report said the high school graduation rate had hit 80 percent, an all-time high, while the other showed that a declining number of young people are pursuing four-year college degrees.

At first blush, those reports would appear to be contradictory. More high school graduates but fewer of them heading off to college? That doesn't seem to make sense.

But there's a big story emerging here. There are many reasons fewer people are pursuing four-year bachelor's degrees. Cost is a big one as four-year institutions seem locked in perverse competition to see which can charge the highest tuition. It has become a major hurdle for many families, especially those struggling to keep their heads above water. Students end up taking on huge debts they will be many years repaying. It is daunting to say the least.

But I think an even bigger factor is a growing realization that those highly touted four-year degrees are no longer surefire tickets to prosperity. Technology is rapidly changing the world of work and for many if not most young people the traditional liberal arts degree is increasingly seen as irrelevant. There is nothing wrong with studying Elizabethan poetry but it won't help you get a good job.

Young people are looking for career paths that are both financially feasible and lead to real world opportunity. The answer for a growing number of them is the specialized training offered by community colleges and technical schools that are emerging as the practical alternative to traditional four-year colleges.

Community colleges are uniquely suited to working with local businesses and other enterprises to determine precisely what training and skills are needed in a local area. Not surprisingly this has become a major focus of manufacturing where a continuing shortage of job candidates who can function in high-tech manufacturing is a major headache. For many of the manufacturing execs I talk to, the skills gap is a bigger problem than taxes, regulations, foreign competition or any of the other routine issues that they worry about.

But of course, there is an abundance of demand for real world skills beyond industry. Any field you might care to name - health care, engineering, law, accounting, medical research, social services, retail, money management - is adapting to the demands and possibilities of advancing technology. They are finding they can operate more efficiently by depending more on people with practical job skills who are at home in the digital age and can stay abreast of innovation, and less on people with traditional liberal arts degrees.

I predict in the years ahead we will see an accelerating decline of university enrollment in favor of increasing enrollment in two-year technical schools and community colleges. A two-year career path clearly makes sense for manufacturing and many other technical professions.

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Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements.