Posted on 8/15/2018

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Four-Year Degrees vs. Vocational Schooling

Brigitte Neumayr

In the last decade, we have seen the pendulum swing from a focus on traditional four-year degrees to an alternative approach with vocational schooling. What has been the cause of this and what is the impact on the job market? Is a traditional four-year degree really better in the long run? Due to the increasingly high costs associated with a college education, as well as other issues, more and more people have been considering vocational school as an education alternative.

Vocational schooling is education designed to train students on a particular skillset related to a specific job. The length of time to obtain a degree is typically only 2 years rather than a traditional bachelor’s degree—double the time—at 4 years. With this shortened time comes significant cost savings. This may be part of the explanation of why trade schooling has become increasingly popular amongst young adults. On average, it costs $127,000 for a Bachelor’s degree versus $33,000 for a trade school degree in the United States. Many young adults graduating from high school might see this as a deterrent from the traditional four-year degree. In addition, those who choose to go the route of vocational training will start working much earlier and at a younger age than their counterparts who work towards a university degree.

In the last few years, it has been extremely common to drive past auto shops or engineering companies and see advertisements that they’re hiring for roles like engineering technicians, electricians, plumbers, and mechanics. It is evident that not only is there a need for these types of candidates in today’s market, but there’s a lack of those with the skillset available. We’ve heard time and time again that there is a “skills gap” with working adults who are between the ages of about 25-40 in this space. This may be contributed to the focus on four-year studies for quite some time, rather than vocational schooling. 

More than half of employers admit to a skills gap at their organization. To address this issue, many schools and governmental officials have taken part in being activists so to speak for closing this gap and pushing the pendulum back towards trade schooling. Employers are turning to internships and apprenticeships to teach and train young students about the options they have and the potential with earning a degree from trade school versus a traditional degree. Schools in the U.S. are implementing courses that are outside of the typical math, science and history studies and exploring classes in automation and robotics as alternatives. This gives students an opportunity to explore these alternatives at an early age to determine if they are interested and also to have early exposure to the topics and how they apply to “real-world” jobs.

There is no question that earning a four-year degree increases your salary earning potential, no matter what degree you obtain. However, how many of us know (or are) someone who received their degree and are on a career path that doesn’t use their study of choice? I will raise my hand to this, and to be quite honest, it forces me to reflect on the age that many students are when they have to choose what their study of focus will be for their career. When I look at a 17-year-old today, I can’t imagine they have a clue about all the jobs available to them and how to even choose what they want to be when they “grow up.” With the significant cost of schooling today and the vast number of job titles, it can be daunting. Moreover, many of these adolescents don’t understand the options they may have or what schooling is necessary for a particular job. 

Overall, both four-year degrees and trade schooling have their pros and cons, but student should be aware and educated of the options and opportunities associated to both. Yes, four-year degrees may provide greater opportunities in terms of long-term growth and compensation, but they leave students swimming in debt and sometimes not even using their degree because they have to choose their study of focus at such a young age. On the other hand, those who choose to go through trade schooling have less debt and can start work sooner, but have less options in terms of job type and alternatives. The proactive approach many schools and employers are taking to educate young adults of the myriad of options in today’s market will hopefully prove to be successful in closing what we call the “skills gap.”  

About the Author

Brigitte Neumayr | ICONMA

Brigitte Neumayr is a Michigan native and Spartan. She works locally as a business development manager at ICONMA, a global information consulting management firm providing professional staffing services and project-based solutions for organizations in a broad range of industries. Brigitte is involved with several organizations including Automation Alley, Detroit Young Professionals, APACC and WIN Collective (a women’s only young professionals networking group).


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