Pathway Choices: Alternatives to College

Take a dramatically changing economy, add high demand for specialized skills to a low supply of workers with those skills and what do you get? The creation of new pathways, designed to satisfy the demand for millions of available jobs. Almost every area of our lives has been transformed by technology in the past decade and the speed of change shows no sign of slowing. Large corporate structures are giving way to more decentralized models of employment. Like the artisans of years ago, specialized workers are needed, as the workplace adapts to this new economy. For the first time ever, there is potential to level the playing field for students across the socioeconomic spectrum.

In many ways, it is like the Wild West all over again. A new frontier has opened and opportunities abound. Rather than moving across physical land, this frontier moves across a virtual landscape, enabled by technological platforms extending around the globe. New types of communities are disrupting traditional methods of communication and commerce in our personal and work lives. The way we socially connect and interact has changed dramatically with the introduction of the smartphone, the cloud and social media.  Every industry has been impacted from hospitality (AirBNB) to transportation (Uber) to music (Spotify).

To respond to these changes, specialized training programs have entered the scene, filling the gap between a high school diploma and a college degree. They are offered through online platforms, university extension courses, apprenticeship programs, vocational schools and in-house corporate training programs.

Additionally, state governments are collaborating to fill the unmet demand for workers. An initiative led by the Governors of 20 states and the Markle Foundation, called the Skillful State Network, is based on a pilot started in Colorado to train and retrain workers.

“We have 9,000 job openings in cybersecurity in Colorado, and 60% don’t require a college degree,” says Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Their goal is “helping workers recalibrate their skills for a technology-driven economy and developing pathways for workers without college degrees to enter middle-class jobs.”  

The opportunity to advance based on knowledge and expertise was further supported by the 100 CEOs who participated in the Fortune + Time Initiative in September 2017.

A panel of executives proposed significant but pragmatic innovations, including the expansion of internships and apprenticeships, better cooperation with community colleges, and a credentialing process to help workers advance based on what it called “competency, not pedigree.”

Apprenticeships are getting fresh attention as an alternative to going to college. More than 74 occupations, from tax preparation to graphic design, could be filled by people trained solely through apprenticeships, according to a new study by the Harvard Business School Project on Managing the Future of Work and Burning Glass Technologies, a software company that analyzes job data.

Colorado is also leading the way with a statewide high school apprenticeship program, CareerWise Colorado, which is modeled after a program in Switzerland. The three-year apprenticeship starts during the junior year of high school and continues for one year after graduation. Students earn money and college credits while they spend time in both the classroom and workplace. Upon completion, they have a credential to enter the workforce or they can use their credits towards finishing a degree. For employers, the three-year program is worthwhile because it allows them to earn a return on their investment in job training.

Career and Technical Education (formerly called vocational training) is expanding in high schools and community colleges across the country, offering certificates for entry-level positions in multiple sectors. Healthcare is one of the many industries using this type of training to rapidly increase the number of workers entering the field. For decades, our basic health needs were serviced by a doctor with a nurse assisting. Then, group practices and urgent care clinics emerged. Now, the industry is further unbundling to provide specific preventative care through local drugstore chains like CVS and Walgreens. This has created demand for a multitude of different healthcare service jobs requiring specific skills, such as medical biller or nursing assistant. As these workers gain experience, they can progress at their own pace to take advantage of learning new technologies and develop more advanced skills.

Our cultural focus on “college-for-all” has created a shortage of highly skilled tradespeople:

The United States has 30 million jobs that pay an average of $55,000 per year and don’t require a bachelor’s degree, according to the Georgetown center. People with career and technical educations are actually slightly more likely to be employed than their counterparts with academic credentials, the U.S. Department of Education reports, and significantly more likely to be working in their fields of study.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), led by Coursera, edX and Udacity are also stepping in to help train workers in partnership with companies needing specially-trained workers. They are now moving towards branding their credentials with names like Nanodegree, Specializations and MicroMasters to establish marketplace credibility.

WozU, the new tech training school established by Apple’s co-founder, Steve Wozniak, aims to train workers while providing mentorship by tech experts. It brands itself as “Education. Reprogrammed.” It’s developing relationships with schools and employers to help students acquire the skills needed for the most in-demand tech careers.

Although corporate training programs have been around for many years, more and more companies are implementing in-house education programs to help fill open positions. AT&T University, Grow with Google and Apple University represent this new breed of corporate academies.

A recent Wall Street Journal article further highlighted the issue facing employers and the need to shorten the timeframe required to bring workers up to speed:

Federal policy for decades has pushed more people to go to four-year colleges, promoting a college-preparatory high-school curriculum and easing access to student loans. But technology is changing faster than colleges can keep up and employers say too many schools aren’t teaching students the skills they needor even basic critical thinking.

With the labor market the tightest it has been in a generation, this misalignment is causing big—and expensive—headaches for employers. So companies are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. Major employers like CVS Health Corp. , Novelis,International Business Machines Corp. , Aon PLC and JPMorgan Chase & Co. are hiring workers because of what they can do, or what the company believes they can teach them, instead of the degrees they hold.

Many community colleges even offer entrepreneurship training programs, and with access to crowdsourced funding platforms, people with unique ideas can generate the knowledge and resources they need to launch their own businesses.

Choosing one pathway versus another involves comparing the cost of time and money. Given the ability to gain in-demand skills in less than a year, earnings become an important factor. With most college students taking up to 6 years to complete a degree, often with significant debt, the ability to start earning a salary sooner with lower education costs has its benefits.  

The advanced education track is not a race. Regardless of the path chosen, lifelong learning will be required to keep up with the evolving marketplace. In fact, one could argue that with the acceleration of change, slower more deliberate training could be advantageous. It would allow for students to experiment with career options and give them the ability to pivot as new opportunities emerge.

The transforming economy and new training programs have made it possible to create individualized pathways to successful careers. These may involve university degrees, online degrees, credentials or certificates. They can be pursued at colleges, companies, MOOCs, CTE/Vocational schools or other facilitators. They may take weeks, months or years to complete in whatever academic progression fits the individual best. Pedigree or competency pathway? Both are now open. It’s your choice.