Wanna Work in the Skilled Trades? Why Community College Might Be The Best Path To Help You Get There

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

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By Matthew Meyer
North Carolina Community College System

Closely examine the photo above. To most it looks like one taken at a construction site.  Surprisingly, the photo was taken on campus at Pitt Community College in Winterville, North Carolina. This is just one example of the rigorous types of training and experiences that community college students are exposed to at many of North Carolina’s community colleges and that most people in the state would never expect.

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

Why don’t people know about their community colleges? Why don’t parents know about how their children can get training in a career pathway that will pay them a great salary and they will have little or no accumulated education debt? Why don’t more high school juniors or seniors in good academic standing (3.0 Grade Point Average or permission from Principal if student is in a Career and Technical Education track) take advantage of Career and College Promise community college courses in specific trade pathways, which outside of the cost of books, are free to qualifying students? Why don’t people understand that the small class sizes at community colleges mean more personalized attention (classes at many of the colleges average around twelve students)? Why, why, why?

Let’s address the financial ‘why’ for attending a community college by considering a credential in plumbing or carpentry. The ‘go-to’ major for many students across the country is a Bachelor’s degrees in business management (one of the most popular degree pathways in the country). According to the US Department of Education, on average, university tuition across the country is $6,470 for instate public colleges, and $28,109 for out of state private colleges. Compare that costs to the tuition at a community college in North Carolina at $76 per credit or about $1,824 per year. Staying out of debt would seem like a great reason, alone, to attend a community college. Yet, nationally seven in ten seniors (68%) who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2015 had student loan debt, with an average of $30,100 per borrower. This represents a 4% increase from the average debt of 2014 graduates (Project on Student Debt, http://ticas.org/posd/home). Why do families continue to ignore the pathways through community colleges that are low in tuition costs and 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 the they perceive the education through the community college system to be of lesser quality compared to an education through a four-year institution. And yet wage differences for people with an Associate Degree are only slightly less than starting wages for Bachelor’s degree earners. In Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce’s report, “Five Rules of College and Career Game,” the starting average salary for an associate degree was $47,000 compared to that of a Bachelor’s degree at $62,000. Consider in the cost differences of the two degrees and one should question the logic of pursuing certain Bachelor’s level degrees. Furthermore, individuals attaining industry-recognized credentials in the trades earn starting wages comparable to both Associates Degrees and Bachelor’s Degrees.

Construction firms and contractors have learned that some of the best candidates for open positions in their companies come right out of community college training programs. This is partly due 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 working as teams on new home sites or building mobile tiny homes that are auctioned when completed. This hands-on approach allows instructors to show proper techniques and integrate employability skills into the training. Pitt Community College is not alone, as there building trades programs at more than 50 of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges. 

Leaders at the community college system wrestle daily with how to change negative perceptions and tell the public about the quality, affordable education provided by the States’ 58 colleges. The system’s President, Peter Hans, is working with the NC Community College Foundation to rebrand the community college system. However, demonstrating that community colleges in North Carolina are exceptional education pathways for most of North Carolina’s citizens is no easy task. After all, the system is nearly 55 years old, and still, constantly struggles for the respect it deserves.

So if you've thought about, or are consdiering a career in the skilled trades, going to college is now a feesible means to get the education you need to help you not only become more well rounded, but also prepare yourself for a great carrer 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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