Why Are We Sending Our Kids to College?

The Skills Gap Conundrum

In March 2018, there were 6.6 million job openings and 6.6 million people looking for jobs. In other words, at the same time companies were struggling to fill positions, there was a job available for each person who wanted one. Those open positions went unfilled for several reasons, but one in particular stands out: thanks in large part to educational trends and expectations, there is a major disconnect between the skills that employers need and the skills that job seekers have.

All parents want “something better” for their kids, and during the postwar years getting a college degree became a big part of that. For the past few generations, people have been pushing their kids to continue their educations after high school. Business, liberal arts, basket weaving—the field of study hasn’t really mattered as long as it leads to a degree.

That strategy worked for several decades: college became financially accessible to a significant part of the population, and a college degree (in pretty much any field) became an entry ticket to a good career. But over the past fifteen years, the job market has changed dramatically. At the same time, college costs have skyrocketed to the point that Americans now “struggle with a collective $1.4 trillion in student loan debt.”

If higher education isn’t adequately preparing our kids to join the workforce but is saddling them with tremendous debt that they can’t address (because they can’t get good jobs), then why are we still pushing our kids to go to college?

I think it’s because the rise in accessibility of a college education has led to increased stigmatization of manual and skilled labor. Jobs that require working with our hands are now seen as “dirty,” low-paying, and low-status. Our society treats trade school as the consolation prize for kids who aren't “cut out for college.”

Today you’d be hard pressed to find an unemployed (or even underemployed) electrician, plumber, or HVAC technician. Clearly there’s a high demand for people with good manual skills!  But the solution to the staffing problem involves much more than just encouraging more kids to focus on building the specific skills that employers are looking for.

We need to address the problem more broadly by working to change society’s perceptions of certain careers and industries. (For example, most people would agree that “network support specialist” doesn’t have a very “sexy” ring to it.) We also need to work on smashing stereotypes about which types of jobs are supposedly “more suitable” for women or for men. And we need to do this work not just in the skilled trades but in technology-related fields too, so we can avoid having the huge number of unfilled tech jobs that are predicted for the near future.

If, like previous generations, we want our kids to have “something better” than what we have, then perhaps it’s time to rethink how we help them achieve that. There’s no guarantee that the “traditional” route of going to college will lead to good careers (or the ability to pay off the massive debt getting that degree will likely entail). So maybe we should start by helping them understand other pathways to other options—such as vocational schools and tradeskill training—that will enable them to make positive contributions to society.