A greater focus on vocational training in W.Va. is a good thing

January 21, 2018

Focus on vocational training is returning in West Virginia, and across the United States, where a middle skills gap is widening.

Gov. Jim Justice addressed job training in his State of the State speech last week.

“I want us to develop a way to where kids in high school and the trades can get an associate degree while they’re in high school,” he said.

Programs like this already exist in the Eastern Panhandle at both Blue Ridge Community and Technical College and James Rumsey Technical Institute, where students can earn college credits while still in high school.

The shift in focus is both welcome and overdue, however.

For years, the four-year degree has been touted as the only path toward achieving a prosperous and successful life.

This is far from true.

Blue-collar jobs are in fact both fulfilling and oftentimes better-paying than white-collar ones.

And they’re in demand.

About 57 percent of all jobs in West Virginia are “middle skill” — those which require education beyond high school but not a four-year degree, according to the National Skills Coalition. Only about 49 percent of workers in the state are trained at the middle-skill level.

We’ve been hearing for some time about the skilled trade gap — employers who say they cannot find enough trained workers to fill jobs. Following the downturn of the economy in 2008-09, however, job creation dominated headlines. While thousands were out of work, many thought the only way to solve the problem was creating new jobs.

But, even at that time, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported that companies were struggling to fill 2.1 million skilled positions.

The economy has since improved, but the skills gap has not.

In November, the most recent month for which statistics are available, the U.S. Department of Labor reported 5.9 million job openings.

What we need is a culture shift. We need to show youth that the skilled trades are aspirational.

Not every high school graduate needs or wants a four-year degree, and there are plenty of high-paying jobs out there for those who don’t.

Students, who are certainly not all alike, shouldn’t be forced down the same educational path.

White-collar jobs and four-year degrees are not the only way to achieve the American Dream.

Let’s value education — in all its forms.