To attract good talent, companies should normalize not going to college
Everyone is talking about the “future of work”, a broad term that includes things like how technology is changing employment (through automation or artificial intelligence); the increasing integration of environmental and social values into business (“ESG”); and the changing dynamics of our economy domestically and globally.
In considering the future of work, workforce development—that is, career paths and preparation that lead to meaningful work and wages—is a critical piece. How do we best prepare workers to take advantage of the types of jobs we expect to have, is it college education or something else? What types of jobs do we expect to have? What are the most in-demand skills? How do we maintain a competitive workforce in a global market? And how do we uphold values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access?
Despite many changes in how we work and what work looks like, one long-standing attitude (or myth, as I’d like to say) continues to persist―success is defined by a four-year college degree. Related myths that I hear often are that STEM education and jobs are only relevant to those who attend a university, or that STEM doesn’t apply to you if you aren’t looking to be an engineer or a computer scientist. Yet these misconceptions are neither reasonable nor responsible if our real goal is to prepare individuals for the best career opportunities available to them.
To be sure, many fascinating and important fields (STEM and otherwise) wind through a university or graduate school (my own path took me to both). Yet the importance of STEM, and all training and career fields, extends far beyond four-year diplomas. In fact, it’s estimated that nearly half of all STEM jobs do not require a four-year degree and that a third of all STEM jobs are in blue collar occupations.
Understanding demographic realities can be helpful. Among those 25 or older in Utah, about 1.9 million people in 2019 (93 percent) have at least a high school diploma. Yet only 35 percent, about one-third, have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. That means that about two-thirds of Utah’s adult population over 25 years of age doesn’t hold a four-year degree.
What does that mean for how we approach career pathways and training in the state to sustain Utah’s economy and provide economic opportunity and mobility for all? Clearly, developing meaningful pathways for work is important along every kind of training route, college or otherwise.
Work-based learning models like apprenticeships have been used successfully for centuries—the Department of Labor notes that apprenticeships are “one of the oldest forms of job training available”—and they are gaining political traction around the country. This model provides opportunities for those with a high school diploma and no formal post-secondary education to gain valuable, marketable skills without the burden of a heavy price tag.
Peter Philips, a labor economist at the University of Utah, has written that “apprenticeships promote safety skills and culture through extensive classroom/workshop training and on-the-job mentoring. Young workers who commit from 2- 5 years to apprenticeship training and then attach themselves to construction become experienced, well-paid, well-trained, and safer workers.”
Community and technical colleges also provide low-cost options for students to develop in-demand skills and gain practical knowledge. This approach can, in some cases, prepare students better to find careers than four-year or graduate school programs.
As we look to the future of work and how to prepare our workforce for it, we need to present and validate the many different kinds of career paths and training that lead to meaningful employment. Far from lowering an idealized standard of success, this widens it by recognizing the value that non-four-year pathways bring to the table and the significance of the people who excel in their chosen path, no matter what it may be.
While this article focuses on the importance of non-college tracks in workforce development, the future of work in all its facets is an important part of our current national conversation. Think tanks like the Brookings Institute and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies are devoting entire programs to these issues. Politicians and regulators at the federal, state, and local levels are considering how to craft policies that help people and businesses thrive and that address uncertainties about the future. Businesses are revaluating their people strategies—and people are reevaluating their career choices—amidst a tight labor market and “the great resignation.”