Making Trade Education a Partner to Higher Ed, Not an Alternative

Trade education is on the rise. Colleges should embrace transferrable and stackable credentials so students can transition easily between educational paths.
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Sarah K. Lee
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Sarah K. Lee is an angel investor and former education startup founder with 17+ years of experience scaling innovative education programs/schools. She has coached founding teams of EdTech startups globally and invested in future-of-learning and futur...
Published on Oct 22, 2021
Updated Jul 09, 2022
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In today's skill-driven economy, vocational training and attending college shouldn't be mutually exclusive options.

Prevailing wisdom suggests going to college equals success and not earning a degree somehow signals failure. But the truth is, not everyone wants or needs a bachelor's degree.

In fact, succeeding in today's economy often doesn't require a four-year degree at all. American workers, even those who've earned their bachelor's, are increasingly enrolling in trade and community college programs to retrain or upskill. Almost a third of adults in the U.S. also view bootcamp training as a viable alternative to a traditional college degree.

Yet these higher ed alternatives shouldn't veer one irretrievably away from the college track. Today's workers should have options to move seamlessly between employment and school, building "stackable" credentials that demonstrate learned skills and lead to degrees, if desired, along with career advancement.

This shift is needed now because the traditional college degree hasn't kept pace with the demands of a changing labor force. The U.S. faces skills gaps and labor shortages in many sectors, including tech, healthcare, manufacturing, and other trades. Businesses across the country report a mismatch between the skills workers have and the skills they need.

Higher education has been slow to adapt to these changes. Meanwhile, high-tech companies like Microsoft and Google are defining a new market for retraining and upskilling that is revolutionizing trade education in the U.S.

Fortunately, colleges can still catch up. If traditional higher ed institutions can deploy new immersive learning technologies, streamline trade education pathways, and embrace short-term, transferrable, and stackable credentials, it's possible for higher ed and vocational training to become one educational pipeline in the journey toward career success.

The Tech Revolution in Trade Education

The term "trade education" traditionally has been associated with professions such as carpentry, plumbing, welding, masonry, and machining. A current definition broadens that scope to include fields as diverse as web development, healthcare, hospitality, retail, financial services, law enforcement, and telecommunications.

These trade sectors, along with the training needed to succeed in them, are increasingly tech-enabled. Coding bootcamps are just one example where the market continues to scale and innovate the delivery of skills-based education, but artificial intelligence and immersive learning technology — like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) — may actually revolutionize trade education as we know it.

In fact, one in three small and mid-size businesses plans to pilot VR training by the end of this year, with the goal of training new employees 50% faster. On a larger scale, AI companies like Deephow are enabling manufacturing corporations such as Stanley Black & Decker and Siemens to address the skills gap of an aging workforce and boost productivity. Worldwide, the VR/AR market is expected to grow roughly 7.7 times between 2018 and 2022.

Immersive learning also includes critical "soft skills" employers seek in new graduates. Praxis Labs, a company founded by women of color, uses VR for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) training, and boasts clients such as Uber, Amazon, and Google. Walmart is using VR to train one million associates in new technologies, soft skills such as empathy and customer service, and compliance issues.

For their part, vocational schools are already using augmented reality in the classroom, immersing students in pursuits like veterinary surgery and automotive technology. Traditional higher education, by comparison, has been somewhat slow to adopt this new learning tool. One recent study found that only 18% of colleges have fully deployed VR tech in the classroom.

The use of immersive learning and AR/VR is one area where trade schools, big tech, and corporate America have stayed ahead of the curve — and ahead of traditional colleges and universities.

Rethinking the Trade School-Higher Ed Partnership

For some students, a bachelor's degree isn't the end game, at least not initially. More and more learners seek to accumulate credentials over time that lead to better employment opportunities, perhaps culminating in a bachelor's degree. In other words, they want their learning to be "stackable," like LEGOs.

Yet, the value of vocational credentials, training, and experience isn't necessarily recognized by traditional colleges and universities. We need to get to a point where skills and vocational training have both economic and academic value, readily transferable between colleges, training institutions, and employers.

"Credentials should build toward degrees, which is why the future of education should be stackable," wrote Paul Freedman, president of Guild Education's Learning Marketplace, and Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University. "It's the answer that allows learners to land meaningful jobs now while moving toward a degree."

Employers embrace this concept as well. A 2021 survey found that 58% of employers have hired employees with non-degree credentials or are considering it, up from 40% in 2019. Skills, not degrees, are becoming the currency of the future workforce.

This "LEGO piece" approach to education and credentialing — part of the great "unbundling" of higher education — will emerge as the preferred path, if it hasn't already.

"We will see a reset between the value placed on degrees, once highly prized for indicating a level of skill and knowledge to be ready for the future, and 'just-in-time' education, which is present-oriented and more immediate," Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt wrote. "The increasing need for upskilling and reskilling … will tilt the balance toward more educational programs that are closely aligned with the labor market and provide certificates, micro-credentials, and badges — not degrees."

That mindset should exist especially at the community college level, says Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College in Texas. He notes this sector has to "completely reimagine the way we structure ourselves to build workplace skills that lead to a family-sustaining wage. That means moving away from a century's developed academic model and partnering with our work force to reimagine where learning happens, how it happens, and who it's happening with."

One solution in that direction is to create more formally articulated partnerships between community colleges and trade schools. Stackable credentials earned in vocational schools, including bootcamps of all kinds, could progress seamlessly toward an associate degree — and eventually to a bachelor's degree — as one signpost along the journey of educational and skills attainment.

A federal agency helping to foster links between higher education and vocations could strengthen that relationship. In addition, Pell Grant reform — which has so far been stalled in Congress — should be prioritized by the current administration, freeing up federal financial aid for short-term credentials and non-degree programs.

Ultimately, four-year colleges must connect to this pipeline. Students should be able to progress seamlessly from trade schools to community colleges to a bachelor's degree, carrying with them their stacked credentials and moving back and forth between school and work, or doing both simultaneously.

Achieving Outcome-Based Learning in Higher Ed

Increasingly, universities have come to accept outcome-based education — the demonstration of knowledge gained and skills learned. Credit for prior learning is now routinely awarded toward degree completion. This model should be normalized for trade jobs, co-ops, internships, and apprenticeships without additional costs for students.

Innovative apprenticeship programs are increasing in popularity. The consulting firm Accenture developed its own apprenticeship program and partnered with nonprofit Year Up, an organization aiming to close the "opportunity divide" by partnering with companies to provide business and technical skills training.

Bank of America provides on-the-job training and career coaching for low- and moderate-income candidates through its Pathways program; it plans to hire 10,000 Pathways participants by 2024. Microsoft's 16-week Leap Apprenticeship Program provides a combination of formal classroom and on-the-job training for eligible applicants who completed a coding bootcamp or a similar program, preferably in project management.

If passed by Congress, Biden's American Jobs Plan would also include major investments in apprenticeship programs. Colleges and universities should take note of these developments, normalizing apprenticeships as a way to earn credit and matriculate in degree programs.

Gregory Seaton, associate director of JFF's Pathways to Prosperity Network, perceives benefits for both universities and students resulting from stronger institutional partnerships. "A four-year college is not the only path to land a job with strong middle-class earning potential," he wrote, which is why "college administrators need to develop and communicate clear on-ramps for [career and technical education] graduates to matriculate through their degree programs."

Moreover, "colleges should see this as an opportunity to enrich their student bodies with a diverse pool of career-ready individuals who are able to meaningfully contribute to the learning environment."

A leak-proof pipeline between vocational programs schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions will provide students the flexible options they seek and the ability to build credentials over time in response to emerging opportunities and marketplace demands.

Attending vocational schools and traditional four-year colleges shouldn't be an either-or proposition. The fissures in our educational system must be sealed to allow for every interpretation of the American Dream.

Feature Image: Westend61 / Getty Images

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