First Choice or Best Choice: Choosing College vs. Vocational School

As I’m writing this, the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio (NPR) has just aired a segment called “Who Benefits from College and Why.” One major component was who should go to college and who should go into a trade. Regarding trades, plumbing was specifically referenced several times, which is a trade not all that far removed from HVACR.

What was interesting about the show was that it was covering the same ground that has been gone over in the 28 years I’ve been writing about the HVACR industry — and I’m sure it was going on for years before — and will surely be going on for many more years.

The rationale has remained the same: Most kids want to go to college and most of their parents want them to go to college, while staying away from vocational programs that might be offered even by four-year colleges or community colleges, not to mention trade schools. We are talking about the desire for four years of college education leading to a bachelor’s degree in a nonvocational field. This is because, it is said, they can get a “better” job and make more money.

One point of the Diane Rehm Show’s segment was the attrition of students from colleges simply because those students are not college-caliber material — but they and their parents wanted them to go, and many colleges had room for them.

The NPR show offered an overload of statistics but did present a fairly balanced perspective with references to the vocational/trade option, although such an option seemed to come in the context of being for those not of “college caliber,” whatever that means. The discussion did not stress the value of a vocational education for those with skills that best fit working in the trades.

The message here is that efforts on the part of HVACR contractors to find and hire qualified service technicians will continue to be a challenge. Organizations like SkillsUSA that loudly and proudly proclaim the worth of vocational careers in the trades will be fighting the perceptions of students and parents (and high schools that react to those perceptions) that four years of college leading to a bachelor’s degree in a nonvocational field should always be first choice. But in many cases, vocational careers such as in HVACR really are the best choice.

Publication date: 5/20/2013

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