It's hard to believe that summer has slipped by so quickly, and 'back to school' season is just around the corner. Unfortunately, too many Indiana college students are making the fateful decision to drop out of school rather than head back to class.
A recent report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) shows that many Hoosier students are struggling once they enter college to pursue their bachelor's degree just over half (53%) eventually graduate within six years.
Dropping out of college puts these young people back at square one when it comes to their job search, far behind their peers with a diploma: 2008 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that unemployment is twice as high and average earnings just over half as much for high school graduates versus those with a bachelor's degree.
But high school graduates who don't choose the 4-year college path don't have to resign themselves to a life of low wages and limited career choices. There are a wealth of opportunities in today's job market that demand advanced training but not a bachelor's degree.
Let's start with a dose of reality: In today's knowledge-based economy, a high school diploma doesn't cut it. Twenty years ago, high schoolers could look forward to making a good living at a local factory after graduation. Manufacturing jobs are still out there one of every five Hoosiers has one but they've become high-tech, and demand more education and training beyond high school.
A 2007 report by The Urban Institute ("America's Forgotten Middle-Skill Jobs") defines 'middle skill' occupations as those that require a two-year associate's degree or some sort of certificate training, in areas like manufacturing, logistics, computer support, sales, skilled construction trades, and some administrative/clerical work.
The report estimates that these occupations make up roughly one half (48%) of all American jobs, with 35% of the remaining positions requiring a bachelor's or advanced degree and 15% falling to service and unskilled labor.
It also asserts that "wage gains per year of schooling for those with associate's degrees are comparable to those with bachelor's degrees." Paychecks don't lie these degrees in high demand, a trend that should continue: The Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected that 45% of all job openings from 2004 to 2014 require middle-skill qualifications, as compared to 33% high skill and 22% low skill.
Let's look at manufacturing, the industry where I've spent my career. Everyone knows that basic assembly line jobs have been disappearing for years, made obsolete by new technologies or moved overseas. But new middle-skill jobs are being created, as today's manufacturing workers need computer skills; 'soft skills' like critical thinking and teamwork; and advanced technical expertise operating high-tech equipment. These jobs pay an average of 40% higher than the Indiana median income.
In Central Indiana alone, it's estimated that more than 5,000 manufacturing openings will be available over the next year as skilled Baby Boomer workers retire. And new growth is expected in exciting fields like hybrid-electric vehicles, aerospace, nanotechnology and more.
In logistics, we're seeing similar trends Indiana ranks among the top ten states in logistics jobs per capita, and employment is projected to expand at a steady pace over the next several years. With manufacturing output and exports growing and the 'just in time' nature of business today, demand for middle-skill occupations like supply chain managers is robust.
The problem for Indiana isn't a lack of middle-skill jobs, but a lack of middle-skill workers. Statistics from the Lumina Foundation show that just 7% of the state's younger workers have an associate's degree (46% have a high school diploma or less, 23% have a bachelor's degree or more). As Baby Boomers start leaving the workplace in greater numbers, we face a severe workforce shortage at the middle-skill level and if businesses can't find qualified workers, industry will begin to shun Indiana.
The fact that half of our incoming college freshmen don't finish their degrees is a major problem. Indiana is a perennial bottom-dweller among states in the educational attainment of our workers more emphasis needs to be placed on education at all levels, and our colleges and universities have to work harder at keeping students on the right track.
But it's clear that the opportunities of the 'information economy' don't just apply to people with four-year degrees. If the bachelor's degree seems daunting, these students must explore the many other educational options that are open to them associate's degrees through Ivy Tech, Vincennes University and others, a host of technical/vocational training programs.
Preparing yourself for middle-skill opportunities means a better chance at a rewarding, well-paying career that you can be proud of and a stronger economy for Indiana.
Steve Dwyer is President & CEO of Conexus Indiana, an initiative focused on the workforce and other needs of the state's manufacturing and logistics industries; he formerly served as Chief Operating Officer of Rolls-Royce Corporation.
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