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SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Putting on hazmat gear for the first time turns out to be a long-drawn-out process, so the trainees who are practicing this new skill make the time go faster with a little clowning around.
“Smile! Work it! Work it!” one shouts at a classmate as she jokingly strikes glamour poses for photos in a heavy vapor suit with rubber boots, two layers of gloves, a respirator and a 26-pound breathing tank. Another compares the get-up to the uniforms worn by the child-detection agents in the movie “Monsters, Inc.”
Spread out in a parking lot beside a fire station, these congenial twenty- and thirtysomethings are enrolled in a community college program to become firefighters.
Four of the five in this group have something else in common: They previously earned bachelor’s degrees, even though they’ve now returned to school to prepare for a job that doesn’t require one.
“I was part of that generation that was told to go to college, so that’s what I did,” one, Michael Kelly, said with a shrug. “That’s what we were supposed to do.”
But after getting a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of New England — for which he’s still paying off his student loans — Kelly realized that what he actually wanted to do was become a firefighter; after all, he said, unlike a politician, no one is ever angry to see a firefighter show up.
“I spent a lot of money to end up doing … this,” said Kelly, who is now 28, as his colleagues stowed the equipment before they filed back into a classroom.
A lot of other people also have invested time and money getting four-year degrees only to return for career and technical education in fields ranging from firefighting to automation to nursing, in which jobs are relatively plentiful and salaries and benefits comparatively good, but which require faster and far less costly certificates and associate degrees.
First-year nurses with associate degrees can make $80,200 a year and up and first-year electrical and power transmission installers, who also need associate degrees, $80,400 — more than some graduates of Harvard with not just bachelor’s, but master’s degrees.
One in 12 students now at community colleges — or more than 940,000 — previously earned a bachelor’s degree, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. And even as college and university enrollment overall declines, some career and technical education programs are reporting growth, and anticipating more of it.
“I thought I was the only one following this road, but apparently a lot of people are,” said Noor Al-Hamdani, 26, who is getting an associate degree in nursing at Fresno City College, a community college, after having already earned a bachelor’s degree in public health from California State University, Fresno.
In some cases, bachelor’s degree-holders are obtaining supplementary skills — computer science majors adding certificates in cloud technology, for example.
But the trend is also exposing how many high school graduates almost reflexively go to college without entirely knowing why, pushed by parents and counselors, only to be disappointed with the way things turn out — and then start over.
“Somewhere along the line it became ingrained that in order to succeed, whether your children wanted to go to college or not, they had to go to college,” said Jane Oates, who was assistant secretary in the Obama administration’s Department of Labor and now heads WorkingNation, a nonprofit that tries to better match workers with jobs.
When they do start on the route to bachelor’s degrees, a third of students change their majors at least once and more than half take longer than four years to graduate, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Some of the rest drop out. Even among those who manage to finish, more than 40 percent of recent graduates aged 22 to 27 are underemployed, meaning that they’re working in jobs that don’t require their degree, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports.
That makes four-year universities and colleges “a really expensive career exploration program,” quipped Amy Loyd, vice president at the education and employment policy organization Jobs for the Future.
When Shana Tinkle was finishing high school, it was more or less “a rite of passage” to go on and get a bachelor’s degree, she said — in her case, in creative writing from Brown University.
“ ‘You’re supposed to do this. You’ll get a job later,’ ” Tinkle, now 32, remembered being told. “It wasn’t a particularly career-oriented approach.”
Since college, she has worked as a bartender on a sightseeing train in Alaska, a teacher in Canada, a crew member on a sailing ship and a union organizer before ending up here at Southern Maine Community College with the tentative goal of becoming a wildland firefighter, an occupation she points out is in extremely high demand.
Advocates for career and technical education say that, for many people, it makes more sense to start with those kinds of programs, reserving the option of continuing on to more time-consuming and expensive bachelor’s degrees later, instead of vice versa.
“They’re doing college backwards,” said Dave DesRochers, a former offensive tackle for the Seattle Seahawks and now vice president of PATH2, which helps students figure out what they want to do with their lives — before they finish high school — and choose their educations accordingly.
Sebastian Valenzuela learned the hard way. He got a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies at Loyola University New Orleans and a master’s in music composition at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee — credentials he calls “all these pieces of what are now wallpaper.”
Now he’s getting an associate degree in cloud computing at Northern Virginia Community College.
“You can get a good job without a bachelor’s degree,” Valenzuela said. “You don’t need to go to a fancy school. You don’t need to spend a lot of money. But how would high school me know that?”
That’s Gianna Dinuzzo’s story, too. “Even deciding what I was going to major in in college, I was just going through the motions. I graduated from high school and then — what’s next? Okay, college,” said Dinuzzo, who earned a bachelor’s degree in community health from Fresno State and is now studying toward an associate degree at Fresno City College to become a dental hygienist.
Chris Drumm went to the University of Massachusetts Amherst and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” he said. But “my parents were very insistent on, ‘No matter what you do, you’ve got to get an education.’”
He worked in hospitality for a while, then as a paralegal, and now is in the firefighter training course at SMCC. “I wish I knew about this program when I was coming out of high school,” said Drumm, now 25.
Drumm’s fellow trainee Matt Duhaime attended the prestigious Boston Latin School, from which almost everyone in his class went on to four-year colleges and universities. “The one that didn’t went into the Air Force. I remember the teachers and administrators wondering why he wasn’t going to college.”
Duhaime chose Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, which is within 30 miles of at least seven ski resorts, largely because “I knew I wanted to get better at snowboarding,” he said. What he didn’t know was what to do with the bachelor’s degree in marketing he ended up with. So Duhaime worked at restaurants until, now 27, he has also found himself in the firefighter training program.
“Coming out of high school there’s social pressure on you: ‘Where are you going to college?’ Then there’s social pressure on your parents: ‘Where is your son going to college?’ ” he said. “But the hardest thing is making such a finite decision about what you want to do at 18 years old.”
Nicole Buff got a bachelor’s degree in criminology and psychology at Indiana State University just as the last recession started. With jobs scarce, she ended up working in a manufacturing plant that makes brake components for cars and then as a quality technician. Now she’s pursuing a credential in advanced automation and robotics technology at Ivy Tech Community College, a field she said she really likes.
“There is a little resentment” about the time and money spent on her bachelor’s degree, said Buff, now 36. “I’ll never regret learning something. But I was part of that group of people who listened to their parents and their teachers and advisers who said ‘Yes, get this and you’ll be set.’ ”
She laughed. “And I did, and it ended up poorly. I don’t think when we’re 18 we’re anywhere near ready to plot out what we’re going to do.”
This not only winds up costing time and money; it contributes to a shortage of workers in skilled trades, said Robert Templin, a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program who served as president of two community colleges.
“It was pretty frequent that we found arts and sciences students who had not considered when they started their bachelor’s degree education how they wanted to make a living,” Templin said. “Universities are still seen as places where young people go to figure out what they want to do, and that’s expensive, not only for the students and their parents but for the taxpayers who support those four-year institutions.”
The push to help students make more informed career decisions while they’re still in high school is coinciding with frustration over the high cost of college — further heightened by the fact that many institutions have continued to charge full in-person tuition for remote classes during the Covid-19 crisis — and increased public awareness of the potential for jobs at good pay in the skilled trades.
The pandemic also has intensified demand for so-called “middle skills” workers with certificates or associate degrees, such as nurses and information systems security technicians.
“If students had more awareness of other options, training opportunities or workforce demand at an earlier age they might take a different path,” said Shaun Dougherty, a professor at Vanderbilt University who studies education policy.
In Virginia, Colorado and Texas, where earnings are tracked, students with certain technically oriented credentials short of bachelor’s degrees earn an average of from $2,000 to $11,000 a year more than bachelor’s degree-holders, the American Institutes for Research found.
Nationally, median pay for a construction manager is $95,260, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; an aircraft mechanic, $64,310; a web developer, $73,760; and a dental hygienist, $76,220. Plumbers make a median of $55,160, and the top 10 percent take home $97,170; firefighters, $50,850, rising to $92,020 for the top 10 percent.
And an analysis by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found first-year nurses with associate degrees making $80,200 a year and up and first-year electrical and power transmission installers, who also need associate degrees, $80,400 — more than some graduates of Harvard with not just bachelor’s, but master’s degrees.
Many of these kinds of jobs are coming open even as the recession cuts into employment. That’s because more skilled tradespeople are between the ages of 45 and 64, and nearing retirement, than workers in other occupations, the staffing company Adecco calculates.
Graduates with bachelor’s degrees still generally make more than people with lesser credentials — about $19,000 a year more than associate degree recipients when they’re at the peak of their respective careers, according to The Hamilton Project. (Six in 10 people who go to four-year universities or colleges also borrow to pay for their educations, and end up with an average $28,950 in student loan debt.)
And employers often prefer candidates with bachelor’s degrees, even for jobs that previously did not require them, a Harvard Business School study found. This so-called “credential inflation” tends to peak during and after recessions, according to research conducted at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, which found that, during the last recession, the proportion of job postings requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher rose by more than 10 percentage points.
Completing career and technical education is almost always faster and less expensive than studying toward a bachelor’s degree, however, and trainees can earn while they learn. That’s the case for several of these future firefighters, who are already working in fire stations and getting paid to go on calls.
“Even deciding what I was going to major in in college, I was just going through the motions. I graduated from high school and then — what’s next? Okay, college.”Gianna Dinuzzo, student, Fresno City College, a community college
“It’s just a better pathway for people who are not so sure they want a bachelor’s degree but they know they want to go into, for example, firefighting,” said Michelle Rhee Weise, author of the new book “Long Life Learning” and former senior vice president for workforce strategies at the Strada Education Network. “And that’s important to know before they make their huge investment.”
All of this is helping change perceptions of long-disparaged career and technical — previously called vocational — education.
“We have done a lot as far as addressing the recognition of the value of these jobs,” said Chelle Travis, executive director of SkillsUSA, an association of teachers, students and industries that focus on it.
This changing awareness is already having an effect. Maine’s community colleges report that the number of people signing on to short-term job training quadrupled over the last two years, to 3,625 in the 12 months ending June 30. El Paso Community College in Texas is expanding those kinds of programs; its president, William Serrata — who chairs the American Association of Community Colleges — told education journalists in September that his counterparts are also preparing for an increase in demand.
Arkansas, where a quarter of skilled tradespeople are at or near retirement, has launched a campaign to nudge more people into career and technical education. And New Jersey educators agreed this year to create smoother routes for students from vocational high schools to community colleges for career and technical education.
Parents still see four-year universities as the ultimate goal, however, high schools are ranked on the basis of how many of their graduates go to one and some jobs in manufacturing and skilled trades continue to be looked down upon.
“It’s not as cut-and-dry as too many students are going to four-year degree programs,” said Alisha Hyslop, director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education. “It’s more that we need more education for students before they get to college, more career awareness and exploration opportunities to learn about careers.”
There’s some risk that this could end up diverting low-income and racial and ethnic minority students into training for skilled trades while their higher-income and white classmates continue to get bachelor’s degrees.
“Coming out of high school there’s social pressure on you: ‘Where are you going to college?’ Then there’s social pressure on your parents: ‘Where is your son going to college?’ But the hardest thing is making such a finite decision about what you want to do at 18 years old.”Matt Duhaime, student, Southern Maine Community CollegeCommunity College, Higher education access, Higher education affordability, Higher education completion
“That is the big concern, and part of why people are a little reluctant to take it on,” Dougherty said of the idea that high schools more proactively help students pick career paths. “It has to be done thoughtfully so that we don’t go back to a tracking model [based on] the color of your skin or your ZIP code.”
Still, he and others point out that higher education is already deeply stratified in these ways, with more affluent Americans going to the most prestigious universities and lower-income ones to community and for-profit colleges.
“So the question becomes,” Weise said: “How are we going to do this better?”
Sometimes the question may be more simple: What makes someone happy?
For Peter Wong, it wasn’t necessarily the bachelor’s degree in anthropology he earned at Loyola University Chicago, or even his subsequent law degree.
What Wong really wanted to do was work around food.
“I went to college because that’s what we did,” Wong said. “My mother said, ‘You’re going to get a degree if it kills me.’ I really didn’t want to go. I was just there trying to figure out what I wanted to do.”
He ended up in sales jobs and worked for a bank for a while and then for a national retailer. “It was a paycheck,” he said.
Now 52, and having moved home to Chicago to be closer to family during the pandemic, Wong is studying toward an associate degree in culinary arts at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana.
“I don’t regret the stuff I’ve done,” he said. “But I wish I had done this 20 years ago.”
Tinkle, the aspiring wildlands firefighter with the Brown degree, said she hears that a lot.
“A lot of people I’ve met have said to me, ‘I wish I’d done what you were doing when I was your age,’ ” she said. “And I tell them: ‘Well, you should have.’ ”