Skilled-Trades Programs Thrive As College Enrollment Drops

As college enrollments continues to decline, skilled-trades programs see a major boost during a time of mass labor shortages.

By Erika Hanson | Published

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There was once a time when a college degree was the quintessential passage of education. Even though plenty of parents, educators, and leaders across the nation still believe that college is a necessity for those who want to succeed in life, skilled-trade programs have long been able to debate such proponents claiming just as much need for trade schooling as well. And as the COVID pandemic has rooted out many new aspects of education, one major thing that has come to light is the growing need for skilled trades programs as data reporting college enrollment declines weighs in on the booming trade school industry. 

Skilled-trade jobs employ people in careers like construction workers, electricians, welders, HVAC technicians, and similar professions that often require hands-on work. These types of jobs are usually pursued by individuals who attend a trade school for a particular field of work, or participate in skilled-trades programs. Instead of attaining college degrees, they often receive certificates. Depending on the field, people can attain these accreditations in as little as a few months to four years. 

Over the last decade or so, there has been a shift amongst younger generations rethinking the college experience. As college prices continue to rise way faster than inflation, students in droves are opting to skip college and head straight into the workforce or into skilled trade programs. Recent studies back this claim up and show how the pandemic has only heightened this as well.

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Since the onset of the pandemic, more than a million students have held off from going to college. Two-year public schools have felt the brunt of this decline the most, as they’re reportedly down about three-quarters of a million in student enrollments. Many believe this is because students have gone directly into the work pool. Others think it’s because younger students are finally seeing the massive potential in skilled-trade labor. 

Trade Skills throughout the U.S. have made note of increased enrollments. In Utah, enrollment rose in the fall at seven of the state’s eight technical colleges this academic year,  according to the Utah System of Higher Education. Likewise in South Dakota, the Lake Area Technical College saw an 8% increase this year in enrollment. Similar reports of increases have been reported throughout the country for skilled-trade apprenticeships in fields like HVAC and automotive repair. These fields, like plenty of others, are surely thrilled at the increase in interest, as they face dire labor shortages.

The current labor shortage is often discussed in the news. It can also be seen walking through American towns, where help-wanted signs are popping up at alarming rates. A huge chunk of this is claimed to be attributed to experienced workers in skilled-trade positions retiring. Tony Chaffin, the leader of the construction program at Texas State Technical College told NPR that the construction field is facing a lot of issues with a “huge” demand for new workers. “The average building inspector is about 58 years old, so they’re leaving faster than they’re coming in,” Chaffin said.

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It’s a scary thought to ponder the labor shortage in skilled trade jobs. But the statistics that point to an increase in enrollments are promising. If anything, the rate at which college enrollment is dropping while trade school enrollments thrive points to a need for schools to equally ramp up discussion regarding all post-public school options. College isn’t for everyone, and America is in a lot of trouble if they run out of laborers.