people standing around watching at distefanoIn a study recently released by the Economic Policy Institute, disturbing percentages reveal a deeply rooted problem with America’s educational system. “Without question we have failed to pay attention to and invest in opportunities for young people who are not on a path to go to four years of college,” said Chauncy Lennon, the head of work force initiatives at JPMorgan Chase, which has started a $75 million program to design and deliver career-focused education in high schools and community colleges.

For the most part, news about the job market in the last few months has been overwhelmingly positive. Reports detailing that graduates with college degrees are facing a better job market than ever before are everywhere. In fact, economists say that this year is a better time to enter the job market as a college graduate than any other time in the last decade. NPR reports that the tight labor market essentially benefits career prospects for young workers who have their pick of employers. Business Insider notes that 37% of employers plan to increase starting salaries for recent grads, and FiveThirtyEight explains that “The unemployment rate for recent graduates — those ages 21 to 24 — is down below 6 percent, close to where it was when the recession began.”

These numbers sound really good, and in a way, they are. However, the numbers ignore a pretty significant aspect of the policy’s study, which is that 17.8% of high school graduates are unemployed. Lennon’s statement is certainly true, and addresses the public perception that vocational or technical high schools are stigmatized as a “last resort” for underachievers. A population of students who might not be suited for a four-year degree are also unprepared for a technical career because of the lack of programs available. The public stigmas also apply to the assumption that technical careers mean putting a hold on education. However, talking to real workers in technical careers proves that this isn’t always the case: Distefano assistant welding shop manager Skieler Moody explains that she works at Distefano “from 5:30am to 2:30 or 3pm, and I go to school full-time on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday from 6pm to 10pm at night. I hope to finish my associate’s degree in welding next fall, which will allow me to take on more challenging welding projects, and I also want to get my bachelor’s degree in Business.”

In addition to vocational training at the high school level, case studies are also finding that millennials struggle with other areas of the job market that they simply aren’t prepared for. In their report, the New York Times talked to Adam McKinley, 18, who said he dropped out of his high school in Baltimore last year because he needed to work full time. He worked briefly at Dunkin’ Donuts and has searched for jobs at coffee bars and restaurants, hotels and warehouses. Because many of the applications were online, Mr. McKinley said he did not know why he never heard back. “It’s extremely frustrating,” he said. “You have no idea what’s going on.”

McKinley’s case is consistent with a Georgetown study that found millennials frustrated by technology walls and employers who never responded to online applications. These young people also struggled to apply to jobs in person, often applying to hundreds online but eschewing face-to-face contact.

So, combine lack of vocational high schools with a lack of training about how to apply for jobs successfully, and we’ve got a pool of high school students who are underserved and underemployed. It seems that vocational training can provide a really significant solution to this problem, but it’s also important for advanced manufacturers to spread the word about why we need machine maintenance technicians, for example, and why these jobs can be an extraordinary and lucrative option. As Moody says, “I make $5/hour more than all of my friends, and their jobs are usually only part-time, like 20-30 hours per week.”

So, as we launch into the graduation and job search season, we wish the best of luck to college graduates and those who aren’t sure that college is the right path for them. Either is a valid choice.

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