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9396530-Illustration-of-graduation-cap-and-diploma-on-pile-book--Stock-VectorOh, the bliss of being a high school student and dreaming about colleges, without much of a thought to tuition payments, dorms, apartments, cars, jobs—and the list that grows and grows as we begin to dip our toes into the tides of real life.

Most everyone is sold on the idea of going to college, for four years, at the snazziest institution possible, because that’s one of our first signs of success in life. And it’s what we are told we should do at career fairs—and by our culture. Many students are groomed to shoot for the stars, aiming for medical school, law school, and anything that produces graduates with titles—and promised incomes.

We all have that friend who made the grade in high school, headed off to a prestigious university, and bam, everything came to a screeching halt somewhere along the line as they flunked out, dropped out, and spiraled downward for one reason or another. On the flip side, most of us know a lot of people who made it through one or two years of college or hit a trade school and have been working steadily for decades now with great families, rewards, and thoughts of a good retirement one day.

While many do not want to listen while they are young, trades can be an extremely fruitful way to make a living and enjoy a high quality of life. The tradeoff is that there may not be the title many once had their hearts set on. It’s just common sense though to realize that often a four-year degree is simply not needed to start a great career. So, why make things harder on ourselves in some cases? As the STEM agenda is becoming ingrained in schools, a number of careers are being highlighted that don’t require as much schooling, and much learning is done on the job.

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[Image: Jenny Brundin/CPR News]

Careers that require skill sets such as digital design and knowledge of 3D printing are up and coming as well—and graduates who have been trained in those areas are becoming more and more marketable.

“I think that when parents think about what they want for their children, they think about a four-year degree,” says Angela Baber, director of STEM Education at the Colorado Education Initiative, a nonprofit working in partnership with the Colorado Department of Education, educators, schools and districts. “But that hasn’t worked for a lot of our students.”

It probably doesn’t work for a lot of parents either, when they are left holding the tab after a student ‘vacates’ their four-year university far earlier than anyone planned on. As far as I know, there’s no refund for dropping out.

According to recent information from Colorado Public Radio, their state is suffering due to a lack of workers in areas that require ‘middle skills.’ Even with a large population of skilled workers, Colorado is forced to bring in people with the required skills from other states. Middle skills are just that, in the middle because they are gained through more than a high school experience, and less than a four-year college experience.

“We’re not even close to filling the gap,” says Mark Alpert, chair of the board of the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, who heads up the organization’s STEM initiative.

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One employer in the state reported to Alpert that while they had openings for 100 tool and die makers, they were able to fill only one position with an individual who lived in-state. It’s stunning to hear that only one percent of the population was hireable. The other 99 new employees came from out of state and had the training required.

“Those are technicians, they are not college-educated people, but the skill is incredibly high,” he says.

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Poudre High school kids doing machine work in class. [Image: Jenny Brundin/CPR News]

It seems incredible also to think that students are being somewhat misled, as many of them may have an aptitude for very fulfilling jobs that don’t require them to take on higher education. Data shows that in Colorado, only 42% of workers are trained to do jobs as:

  • Computer-aided designers
  • Auto repair diagnosticians
  • Welders
  • Machinists
  • Biomedical equipment technicians

Many of these ‘middle skills’ jobs can pay up to $80,000 a year. With so many PhDs and young attorneys out of work in our country, that’s highly impressive for not having to attain a four-year degree—and it sounds like we all need to rearrange our thought processes on education after high school.

Chuck Sugent is the manager of customized training and advanced manufacturing at Emily Griffith Technical College. He also gives high school students tours of their campus and labs, which are equipped to train in trades like heating and air-conditioning (HVAC), advanced manufacturing, computer aided design and drafting, and welding.

“If you want to do things with your hands, if you want to invent things, if you want to produce a process that works efficiently, this is the place,” says Sugent.

“It ain’t your grandpa’s factory,” he says. “Everybody that graduates from this program goes straight out into a job.”

It seems that students who get the tours catch on quickly that it’s a very good idea, and having options offers a sense of security. And with numerous training programs beginning in high schools now, there is no cost—offering a huge head start with graduation.

“It’s really getting them access to the actual technical tools and machines that they would be using on a day to day basis so that they graduate with that experience which gives them an edge,” says the Colorado Education Initiative’s Liz Kuehl.

UntitledWhile the Colorado Education Initiative released the STEM Education Roadmap in 2014, aiming at bringing the powers that be together to work on getting STEM curriculum in front of students, many corporations and smaller business owners who need skilled workers now are bringing up a theme that is common in many areas and other states. They don’t want to wait for kids to come up in the ranks and finally graduate with training in areas like 3D printing, advanced manufacturing, welding, or traditional machining. They needed someone on the job yesterday.

“Boomers are retiring, the gap is enormous, and if not filled quickly enough, jobs will move out of state because there is not enough talent,” he says. “We have one of the greatest economies in the country, and the way to sustain it is to get more talent, locally trained, locally educated and filling these jobs going forward.”

As action is being taken and slow progress is being made, there’s always time for a state such as Colorado to reconsider their plans and implement new programs—specifically those that offer new skills or add to skills that more mature, local workers already have. That’s a win for the economy all around as parents are doing better, children do better and excel in school, and still graduate with new skill sets for taking on jobs that may not require a scholarship to Harvard. What are your thoughts on this angle in education, as well as the need in states like Colorado? Discuss in the 3D Printing Skillsets forum over at 3DPB.com.

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