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It was a graduation ceremony like any other. On a late June afternoon, 11 young men in black cap and gown strode up the stage to receive their diplomas. Friends and family whooped and clapped and snapped countless pictures. One large group sitting in the front screamed and stomped and waved paper cutouts forming the letters of a graduate’s name. Helium balloons bobbed above heads, and as expected, one got lost in the ceiling.
These 11 students represent the first graduating class of the Universal Technical Institute in Long Beach, Calif., the newest campus addition to the nationwide UTI family that has been providing postsecondary technical education since 1965. The diplomas these graduates received are not academic degrees but certifications in diesel technology, and the coursework took 45 weeks instead of four years—not that they or their families are any less proud of what they’ve achieved.
Graduate student speaker William Amelong, a tall, soft-spoken man with walnut-toned skin and one missing left arm, said in his speech that it took a “leap of faith” to apply to UTI, not knowing if he’d finish. He graduated with perfect attendance and honors.
Another graduate, strapping 25-year-old Luis Gutierrez, said the traditional four-year college route never appealed to him. High school was tedious enough, and the thought of spending more years behind a desk makes him shudder. Like most of his schoolmates, Gutierrez has always enjoyed working with his hands, taking mechanical things apart and figuring out how they work.
As the oldest son in his family and a new dad, Gutierrez needed a good-paying, stable job—fast. UTI allowed him to put down his pencil and pick up a wrench during class time, then jumpstart his career within a year. Gutierrez says he’s confident in finding a job to support his family: 4 out of 5 UTI graduates find a job in their field, and in Los Angeles, the median salary is $36,000 for an auto technician, $57,000 for a diesel technician.
Millennials (those born after 1980) face an uncertain, scary future: Student loan debts, healthcare costs, and living expenses are higher than ever, while the postrecession labor market continues to slog. At a time when even some postgraduates from respectable schools are foaming latte milk at minimum wage while under mountains of debt, many millennials are choosing alternative paths such as trade schools that provide job-specific skills in fields as varied as manufacturing, automotive mechanics, and plumbing. It’s a development President Barack Obama has encouraged, saying “folks can make a lot more, with skilled manufacturing or the trades, than they might with an art history degree.”
Obama’s remarks outraged a bunch of art historians (he later apologized), but for many millennials who have heard all their lives that college is the only way to a respectable career, such support for alternative routes is refreshing. Over the past several decades, the culture has honed down the American dream to one path: Go to college, get a degree or two, find a white-collar job. Many high schools dropped vocational education programs that could have encouraged young people toward career options. National leaders, parents, and educators pushed the younger generation to pursue higher learning and avoid manual labor.
And Americans listened. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, some 20.2 million students—of whom 57 percent were female—attended U.S. colleges and universities in fall 2015, a 4.9 million increase from 2000. Last year alone, colleges and universities awarded an estimated 1.8 million bachelor’s degrees and 802,000 master’s degrees. That’s a lot of commencement ceremonies—but for many graduates, the celebration ends there when they discover a degree doesn’t guarantee a career.
In 2012, about 44 percent of college grads worked jobs that didn’t require a degree, and more than 1.8 million young adults have given up looking for a job entirely. No wonder polls show that half of millennials believe the American dream is dead.
But some now realize that trade schools can offer advantages that colleges don’t. Lower cost is one: The average trade school degree costs $33,000. Compare that with the $96,000 students pay on average for a bachelor’s degree at an in-state public college, or $192,000 at a private college—more if the student takes longer than four years to graduate, which many do. And that’s not even considering the annual increase in tuition and interest payments on loans.
But what appeals to most are the jobs. The demand for middle-skill jobs—jobs that require a high-school diploma but not a university degree—is swelling. A USA Today analysis estimated that between 2014 and 2017, about 2.5 million new middle-skill jobs—almost 40 percent of all job growth—will need to be filled. Baby boomers are retiring or dying faster than young people can replace our plumbers, electricians, and welders, prompting a serious labor shortage. These are manual services that will not be outsourced, since a worker in India can’t unclog a toilet or fix the car brakes of a New Jersey schoolteacher.
The old notion that middle-skill jobs are dead-end, mundane, or plebeian is gradually changing. Consider the mechanic: With high-tech computer software built into modern vehicles, today’s mechanic (now called a technician) spends almost as much time in front of a computer screen as turning wrenches. “You can now go to work with a clean shirt and return home with a clean shirt,” said Michael Baldwin, an education manager at UTI–Long Beach and a mechanic of 22 years. Gone are the days when mechanics were stereotyped as “grease monkeys robbing old ladies of pension funds.”
But the stigma of blue-collar work lingers for some. In his five years as a field representative recruiting high-school students for UTI–Long Beach, Gabriel Hernandez has met many high-school counselors who still prescribe college as higher-tier success: “It’s unfortunate because there’s such a high demand in [middle-skill jobs], and we’re losing people who might potentially have gone into that industry.”
That’s one reason John Lopez started a welding school in Bakersfield, Calif.: He noticed many unemployed, able-bodied men struggling to support their families. He observed the widening dearth between supply and demand for welders: The average welder in America is 55 years old, and fewer than 20 percent of welders are age 35 or younger. Yet an entry-level welder can earn $25 per hour and quickly work his or her way up to $60-per-hour pay with overtime. When Lopez tells these young men that he once earned $100,000 for seven months of work on a sewage treatment plant, they get excited.
Lopez’s school started out from the back of his welding truck. He hired a helper who knew nothing about welding, and Lopez taught him how to hold the tools, when to hold them, at what angles—all on the job. His newly skilled helper tripled his previous income, and soon others were begging to be Lopez’s helper.
John Lopez Welding School started in 2006 with two students and has since trained 700. More than 80 percent of graduates found welding jobs. Some are military veterans, others are ex-convicts, and several are ex-drug abusers. The facility consists of a 3,500-square-foot lab with 17 individual welding booths, and a next-door job site, where some of the graduates work as employees for Lopez’s metal fabrication business. A big banner hangs on one wall of the lab: “Let me be a blessing to someone today so I can earn my stay”—a hint at Lopez’s Christian faith.
At any given time, sounds and smells of burning elements, whirring machines, crackling sparks, and screeching sharp objects fill the warehouse-style lab. At least one instructor is present for one-to-one coaching. When one of the newer students needed help, Lopez stood next to him in the little booth, demonstrating the proper way of building up a pad of weld metal on carbon steel plate. He then grabbed the student’s hands and helped angle his hands into the right position, guiding him as the torch roared and sizzled.
Lopez runs his school like a typical job site. Students come to work at 7 a.m., get a 30-minute lunch break, two 15-minute breaks, clean up at 3:30 p.m., and leave at 4 p.m. They receive some classroom teaching, but spend the majority of classwork in their booths. At some point, students leave their booths to work outside, so they experience how different it is to weld in natural elements. “You do what you gotta do,” Lopez always reminds his students, “because if you’re too lazy, there ain’t gonna be food in the fridge for your kids.”
Lopez, 61, understands his students well. As a teenager in Galveston, Texas, he skipped school to steal, drink, and pop hard drugs with friends decades older than he was. Then he joined a maritime school in Maryland, became a sailor, learned welding, and got hooked on the craft of torching, melting, and hammering pipes together—be it in the blazing desert, on piles of snow, or inside a 7-foot mudhole. Every task he completed provided a sense of accomplishment that he now sees in his students’ eyes. “They can’t get enough,” he said. “It’s like something that tastes good: You’re always going to want to taste it again.”
David Fitch, 25, said that’s why he chose welding. An ex-military police officer with a post-9/11 GI Bill, Fitch could have received a free ride to any college, but he chose John Lopez Welding School instead. He said it wasn’t only because he wanted fast-track training and a job to support his wife and three children—he enjoys welding. “It’s calming,” he said. “You drown out everything else once you get your hood on. It’s just you and the pipe.”
Gurinder Singh, a lanky 22-year-old student at UTI–Long Beach, gave a similar reason for choosing to work with cars: “It’s really fun.” Recently, he learned how to fix a dent on a test steel fender with an angle grinder as part of the 51-week Collision Repair and Refinishing Technology program at UTI, a $36,000 course that he expects to earn back within a year or two after graduation. His parents achieved their American dream by emigrating from Punjab, India, and owning a liquor store in Bakersfield, Calif. Singh’s American dream is to own a body shop one day.
Lack of participation
At 4.9 percent, the U.S. unemployment rate is back to similar levels found before the Great Recession. Each year it has gradually dropped since peaking at 10 percent in 2009. But the unemployment rate doesn’t tell the full story of economic health. As baby boomers continue to retire and many Americans stay in school longer getting costly degrees, labor participation rates hit record lows.
According to a June report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 62.6 percent of adult Americans are working or actively looking for a job, the lowest labor participation rate in 38 years.
James Sherk, a labor economics fellow at The Heritage Foundation, said there’s hardly anything economists agree on, but across the board experts agree the unemployment rate does not reflect the current labor climate. And the new labor participation numbers are troubling.
The White House released its own study in June detailing the number of prime-age males (25-54) in the workforce. (That excludes retiring baby boomers and many full-time students.) The report showed that 60 years ago 98 percent of prime-age males participated in the labor force: Today that’s down to 88 percent.
Sherk said middle-skill jobs in manufacturing and the auto industry employ millions of Americans, but employers are finding it increasingly difficult to find good workers who want to do manual labor: “Sadly we have a huge cultural bias to white-collar work.” —Evan Wilt