Community College: The Path to a Trades Career


How two-year colleges are providing students an opportunity to get a college education and prepare for a career in the skilled trades.

Gen T


By Matthew Meyer
North Carolina Community College System

Carefully examine the photo above. It may look like a construction site, but surprisingly this photo is on campus at Pitt Community College in Winterville, North Carolina. This image is just one example of the rigorous type of training and experience that students gain at many of North Carolina’s community colleges that most state residents would never expect.

The community college system in North Carolina began in 1957 with institutions funded by the General Assembly, called Industrial Education Centers. These centers trained students with the skills needed to grow manufacturing and trades industries in the state to move away from the mostly agrarian economy of early 20th century North Carolina. In 1963, the General Assembly established the Department of Community Colleges under the State Board of Education. By 1966, 43 institutions were serving more than 28,000 students. Today, the 58 institutions in the NC Community College System serve more than 710,000 students annually. Data collected in 2012 by the NC Department of Commerce’s Labor and Economic Analysis Division revealed that four out of ten North Carolina residents had taken a class at one of these 58 institutions. And yet, many people do not know about the excellent education and training available at their local community college.

Why are people in the dark about community colleges? Why don’t parents know that their children can get training in careers that will pay a high salary while accumulating little to no education debt? Why don’t more high school juniors and seniors in good academic standing take advantage of Career and College Promise courses for specific trades offered free (except for books) to qualifying students? Why don’t people understand that small class sizes (twelve students per class on average) at community colleges mean more personalized attention than at universities? Why, why, why?

Let’s address the financial argument for attending a community college by considering a credential in plumbing or carpentry. The ‘go-to’ major for many American students is a Bachelor’s degree in business management. According to the US Department of Education, university tuition across the country is, on average, $6,470 for in-state public colleges and $28,109 for out-of-state private colleges. Compare that to tuition at a community college in North Carolina at $76 per credit, or about $1,824 per year. Staying out of debt alone would seem like a great reason to attend a community college. Nationally seven in ten seniors who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2015 had student loan debt, with an average of $30,100 per borrower. This figure represents a 4% increase from the average debt of 2014 graduates. Why do families continue to ignore the educational options offered by community colleges with low tuition costs that lead to great jobs?

Students at Pitt Community College build wall structures for a tiny house. (Courtesy Pitt Community College)

Perhaps the reason so many students and their parents ignore the community college route is that they perceive the community college education system to be of lesser quality than an education at a four-year institution. And yet, wage differences for people with an Associate's degree are only slightly less than starting wages for Bachelor’s degree earners. In a Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce’s report, “Five Rules of College and Career Game,” the starting average salary for someone with an Associate's degree was $47,000 and a Bachelor’s degree was $62,000. Considering the cost difference between the degrees, one might question the logic of earning some Bachelor’s level degrees. Furthermore, individuals who attain industry-recognized credentials in the trades earn starting wages comparable to graduates with Associate's and Bachelor’s degrees.

Construction firms and contractors recognize that some of the best candidates for positions in their companies come from community college training programs. This is due in part to the hands-on approach that community colleges take toward training. An old Chinese proverb says, “tell me and I will forget, show me, and I may remember, but involve me, and I will learn.” Colleges like Pitt Community College in Greenville, North Carolina take this to heart in their construction trades programs. Students begin by working as teams on new home sites or building tiny mobile homes that get auctioned off once complete. This hands-on approach allows instructors to demonstrate proper building techniques while teaching employability skills. Pitt Community College is not alone– there are building trades programs at more than 50 of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges. 

Leaders in the community college system grapple with how to shift negative perceptions and inform the public about the affordable, quality education the 58 NC colleges provide. The president of the system, Peter Hans, is working with the NC Community College Foundation to rebrand North Carolina's community colleges. However, demonstrating that these community colleges offer excellent educational pathways to North Carolinians is no easy task. After all, the system is nearly 55 years old and still struggles to earn the respect it deserves.

So, if you've thought about or are considering a career in the skilled trades, going to college is a feasible means to get the education you need to both become more well-rounded and to prepare for a great career in the skilled trades. Click the button below to get more information on Community College Programs in North Carolina, or go to the Programs page to find a program in a city or state near you.

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