Why Technical School Might Be the Best Education Move for Your Financial Future

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With the cost of college — and student loans — continuing to rise, you may be considering alternatives. Average tuition, room and board for a private four-year college was $50,770 for the 2020-21 school year, according to the College Board, and $22,180 for public in-state four-year colleges. And that’s just for one of the four years before graduation. Depending on your major — and the economy in your area — it could be years before your earnings can make that expensive degree worthwhile.

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Meanwhile, some employers can’t find enough workers to fill jobs and are paying students to enroll in career and technical education programs (CTE). Within a few months or a year or two, you could complete a certificate program, earn an associate’s degree or start an apprenticeship program that can lead directly to a job. Tuition is much lower than it is for four-year colleges, and in many cases is covered in full or part by the prospective employers or state or local programs.

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“All of our programs have great job prospects,” said Shawn Strong, president of State Technical College of Missouri, which is near the top of many national rankings of technical colleges and has a 99% job placement rate. “We get the most phone calls from employers for heavy equipment operators, design drafters, precision machining, diesel technicians, electricians, manufacturing (automation and controls) technicians and biomedical engineering technicians.”

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Recent graduates were hired for a $54,000 job as a design drafter in St. Louis, a $50,000 job as a biomedical engineering technician in Columbia, Missouri, and manufacturing technicians (automation and controls grads) are being hired across the state of Missouri with a number of manufacturers at salaries that are $23 to $25 per hour or more, Strong said. The majority of the heavy equipment operators who complete a one-year certificate program are starting at $18 to $25 per hour.

Students who receive CTE training in health-related fields are also in high demand. “Right now, there are all kinds of jobs in the health care professions, from nursing to technicians – phlebotomy technicians, physical therapy, radiology technicians,” said Alisha Hyslop, senior director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education. “There are also a lot of jobs available in the skilled trades,” such as welding, she said. The job markets for other fields can vary a lot by location. “Look at the local and regional labor market information, because the labor markets look a lot different from one part of the country to another,” she recommended. “IT (information technology) may have more jobs in some areas. Some areas may not need as many welders, but in other places there may be hundreds of job opportunities.”

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What To Look For in a CTE Program

There are a variety of types of CTE programs — some award an associate’s degree, some offer shorter-term professional certifications, and others are paired with apprenticeship programs. Each type of job has different criteria, and it can be difficult to know how to get started.

Before you choose a program, find out more about the job market in your area and the education and training the employers are looking for. You can talk with local employers to learn more about the credentials they require and the programs they recommend. Some employers have partnerships with community colleges or trade schools and make it easy to get a job as soon as the training is completed.

“We encourage students to job shadow or work in the area for a summer if they are not sure about the program,” Strong said.

Tips for Your Search

You can also start your research by visiting your local community college’s career services counseling office. Even if you aren’t enrolled yet, you can ask questions and use the career search and planning tools to learn more about the pathway to take to get jobs in a certain field, Hyslop said.

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American Job Centers, which are funded by the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, are another great resource for local information. “An individual can access those job centers and engage in career exploration and talk with career counselors,” Hyslop said. They can also find out about financial assistance. “There is federal money and state money and local and private money,” she said. You can search for a Job Center near you with this U.S. Department of Labor database.

Some CTE programs are available through community colleges or from public or private technical centers or technical colleges. Before you enroll, find out about the program’s accreditation. “You wouldn’t want to enroll in a program that is not accredited, because that could impact your ability to get a license or certificate later,” Hyslop said.

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Also, ask about the school’s connection with businesses in the area. “The connection to business and industry is critical, and that is a hallmark of a quality program,” she said. “Ask before you enroll what connection to business and industry does the program have. Are there business partnerships providing internships or clinical placements? If there is no business connection, that can be a red flag.”

She also recommends talking with the school’s career counselors about the steps you can take to build upon your initial training as you move forward in your career. “High-quality CTE programs should provide a pathway for students,” Hyslop said. Before you enroll in a program, she recommended asking about future opportunities you can pursue after you finish that first credential.

“In the health care example – maybe the student comes in and needs a job very quickly, and they might go through a short EMT program or nursing credential program that gets them a job. But that may not be the quality of job to sustain them throughout their life,” she said. “The program should provide stackable credentials so maybe they can come back and then get the next level credential in that health care pathway, and maybe eventually get a bachelor’s degree in nursing. That should be a seamless progression for students to progress on and off that pathway during their career.”

Many state and local programs pay all or part of the cost of CTE training. “In Missouri, students have access to the A+ scholarship program, which provides free two-year education to recent high school graduates,” Strong said. “Over 50% of our students are using A+ funds to pay for their education.”

You may be able to save money by starting CTE training in high school. “Students can start CTE in high school, and actually most students do take at least some CTE programs in high school,” Hyslop said. “Some earn an industry recognized credential while they’re in high school, which gives them a jump start in their career path. It allows them to get a job if they need to, and most states that enroll industry credentials in high school articulate that into college credit – if you earn this credential and then you go to a community college in the state, you may get a certain amount of credit towards your post-secondary high school degree. CTE is all about pathways for students into whatever their career goals are in the short-term and their long-term goals.”

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Get Paid To Learn in Apprenticeship Programs

In some fields, such as many of the building trades, apprenticeships are the common way to get started. Other fields are starting to offer apprenticeship programs, too, such as IT and healthcare, Hyslop said.

“One model for apprenticeship that has been getting a lot of attention lately combines on-the-job training with technical knowledge and skills building – classroom-based and worksite-based instruction,” she said. “In a number of places, we’re seeing technical colleges or community colleges partner with the apprenticeship program, whether it’s an employer or whoever is running the apprenticeship program. The community college will provide the classroom knowledge, and they’ll use those skills in the worksite. Usually they’ll finish the program with a nationally recognized apprenticeship program and a certificate and associate’s degree from the technical or community college. The apprenticeship model is valuable because students earn money while they’re going through the program.” In many cases, the employer pays the tuition for the classes, too.

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That’s the case with many of the apprenticeship programs available through Columbus State Community College.

“With the construction boom happening across central Ohio, combined with the record high retirements of the baby boomers, opportunities in any part of the construction industry are at an all-time high,” said Douglas House, chair of Columbus State Community College’s Design, Construction & Trades department. “As an example, we have formal contractual agreements with 11 registered apprenticeship partners across the region representing a wide range of construction skilled trades disciplines – electrical, carpentry, plumbing, heavy equipment operators, sheet metal, HVAC, etc. They simply cannot find new apprentices fast enough. We refer people to them every week.”

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Columbus State also works directly with a large general contractor and national business to conduct a noncredit pre-apprenticeship training program for them at their site. “The participants who complete the four-week training are hired immediately by the subcontractors and become registered apprentices in their respective discipline. A fantastic way to get started in a new career,” House said.

Most registered apprenticeship programs are three to four years long, but they are “earn while you learn” programs. “The apprentices go to work during the day and typically take classes one or two nights a week in the autumn and spring.” House said that most apprentices start at a given percentage of the “top out” wage, which increases every time the apprentice completes a milestone, until they finish the program and receive their Department of Labor journeyperson’s card.

For example, in a typical four-year electrician program, the base hourly rate for a journeyman electrician may be $32 per hour, and the breakdown for an apprentice may be 60% of that rate in the first year of apprenticeship, 70% in the second year, 80% in the third year, 90% in the fourth year, and then they can “top out” at the journeyperson level at 100% of that rate after that, House said. Over the years, the base rate likely will increase, too.

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The milestones are a specified minimum number of related instruction classroom hours per year and a specified minimum number of work hours, he said. “If an apprentice completes both each year, they are guaranteed to be advanced.”

Columbus State Community College also has other building trades programs that aren’t part of an apprenticeship, such as in the construction industry, where they offer education and training and provide job postings from employers in the region rather than an apprenticeship program. They also offer programs such as civil engineering tech, construction management, surveying, welding, landscaping, GIS, architectural drafting and other programs that are part of the construction industry but are not typically part of a registered apprenticeship program, House said.

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About the Author

Kimberly Lankford has been a financial journalist for more than 20 years. As the “Ask Kim” columnist at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine, she received hundreds of reader questions every month about insurance, taxes, retirement planning and other personal finance issues. Her financial articles have also appeared in the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, AARP Magazine, Boston Globe, PBS Next Avenue, Bloomberg Wealth Manager and Military Officer Magazine, and her syndicated columns were published regularly in the Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Baltimore Sun and other papers.
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