Time Magazine published an article last week that scratches the surface of a key concern for the construction industry –workforce development and how well it’s working for the Swiss.
According to the article, the average starting pay for a Swiss vocational school graduate is $50,000 a year with full benefits. Unemployment in this group is three percent. What’s more–two-thirds of Swiss teenagers choose a vocation/technical school and career over the university path.
In the United States, more than half of our high school graduates begin college but barely half of those graduate. The U.S. has the worst college dropout rate of 18 of the top countries in the world. Even those who do graduate earn on average only $41,000 a year the first year out of school–20 percent less than a Swiss trade school graduate. The median annual income for our college graduates is worse, $27,000. And one in two of our college graduates is unemployed or under employed.
Despite this dismal performance, the government, high school counselors, anxious parents and the American universities themselves continue to insist that just about everybody ought to have a four-year college degree.
This kind of thinking about upward mobility may have been true thirty years ago, but it doesn’t work anymore. Yet the universities continue to lower their standards while getting get bigger and richer. Tuition and student loan debt are soaring, but the universities continue to manufacture dropouts and graduates ill-prepared to contribute anything useful to society.
Meanwhile trade and vocational schools are perpetually underfunded and underappreciated even though the mechanics, electricians, welders and plumbers they graduate for a fraction of the cost of a university education are highly sought after and get good paying jobs immediately.
What’s more, these skilled vocational school graduates are working in businesses that create wealth and value, they add to the GDP and the strength of the economy. They make the lights come on, clean water to flow from our faucets and the rain to roll off our roofs. We can’t live without them.
The majority of university graduates, on the other hand, because so few of them learn any useful skills, wind up working in soft jobs for the government, think tanks and non-profits. They are what one sociologist acidly described as “symbol manipulators,” and if all of them were to disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow, neither the GDP nor our daily life would be much hindered. On a number of fronts (I’m thinking of the EPA here), things might actually improve.
At the very high end of intellectual achievement, mostly science and physics research, American universities lead the world, and we’ve got the prizes to prove it. This is something to be proud of and is worth maintaining. But on the low end, in the humanities and social sciences it is unethical for the universities to continue to rope in millions of kids and take their money knowing that half will never graduate or learn anything useful–especially when this money, both the students’ tuition and the government funding that accompanies it–would be better put to use in vocational or technical education.
Where we put our education dollars is a choice. The U.S. has chosen wrong, and our economy, the construction industry and our kids suffer as a result.