With Labor Day around the corner, we need to have a serious conversation about job opportunities. Work is essential to what economist Arthur Brooks calls “earned success.” In America, we don’t celebrate when more and more people rely on food stamps to get by. Temporary government assistance may be necessary if a person or family is going through a rough patch. But the American dream is that every man or woman can find meaningful work to support them and their family, something that isn’t possible for many people in countries all over the world.
For our young people to have a chance at earned success, they need to know where livable-wage jobs are. Even as our economy slowly recovers from the 2008-2009 recession, some parts of the economy are booming. In a recent column for Forbes, Steve Moore noted there are approximately 30,000 job openings in the trucking industry, according to the American Transportation Research Institute. For skilled mechanics, welders, electricians, computer technicians, and plumbers, jobs are similarly plentiful – and these technical jobs often don’t require a four-year college degree.
Our young people need to know that a technical job can be a ladder to a successful career. A skilled electrician or welder can make anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000 annually. As many white-collar professions see massive outsourcing to places like India, there will always be a local need for technical craftsmen. You can’t outsource a plumbing or electrical project to a foreign country.
To help our young people develop the skills necessary to fill these technical job openings, in 2014 the Alabama legislature passed the “21st Century Workforce Act.” It authorized the Alabama Public Schools and College Authority to issue $50 million in bonds so local schools could purchase career and technical training equipment.
Not only do our students need access to technical training equipment, they also need a mental picture of the hard and soft skills necessary to succeed in any job, whether in an office suite or at a work site. That is why every public school student in Alabama is now required to take a “career preparedness” class. Students are taught the basic standards for workplace behavior, the importance of proper grooming, punctuality, and how to write a resume.
Our young people also need mentors. Figuring out the future and what steps are necessary to get a job or prepare for a certain career can be tricky for a 16 or 17-year old. That is why the Career Coaches Initiative is so important. Through the program, a career development coach is assigned to a grouping of five public high schools to provide essential feedback and guidance to students considering various career paths.
Alabama’s two-year colleges additionally need flexibility to experiment with technical career training programs. The new, independent Alabama Community College System Board of Trustees gives the community college system authority over its own schools and should encourage innovative approaches to match students with local job openings.
Technical jobs can give our young people a path to earned success. But many won’t take that opportunity if they perceive a bias against so-called blue-collar jobs. So we need a new definition of career success, one that isn’t tied to the number of university degrees a person has. I am not denigrating college education – most students who have the intellectual and financial ability to attend college, should. But too many young people burn four years in college, leave with a degree in sociology, and spend the next few decades paying off $100,000 in student debt. Those same four years could have been spent earning a welding certificate or a nursing degree (with minimal student debt) that would lead to a job making $40-50,000 each year for nearly $100,000 earned by the time he or she would be finishing college.
More than degrees and credentials, we should value the knowledge and skills that give young people a chance to earn success with a steady job, whether as a doctor or a welder.
Clay Scofield is a third generation farmer and represents District 9 in the Alabama Senate, which is comprised of all or parts of Marshall, Madison, Blount, and DeKalb counties. He is Chairman of the Confirmations Committee in the Alabama Senate.