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A student practices how to use a knee mill, a metalworking machine, during a manufacturing class. More than 100,000 adults earned earned entry-level manufacturing certifications at community and technical colleges between 2005 and 2018, but only 40 percent worked in manufacturing afterward. Credit: Oliver Parini for The Hechinger Report

Professional training programs have exploded over the last dozen years. By one count, there are now more than 500,000 of them, ranging from dental assistant certification programs at for-profit colleges to Microsoft certifications in cloud computing. These short courses last from as little as a few weeks to as long as a year and don’t confer a traditional college degree but, instead, end with a certificate. 

They’re like the Wild West of education. Some are run by industry, others by non-accredited schools. There’s little oversight of their quality. Even less is known about how many students who enroll in these short-term programs manage to complete them, pass their exams and — most importantly — land better paying jobs.

Analysts at the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit group that provides data services for colleges, and the National Association of Manufacturers, a trade association, are attempting to shed some light on this opaque and unregulated area. Their findings on industry certifications were presented at a November 2021 symposium in San Diego of the Institute for Citizens and Scholars (formerly known as the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation). What analysts have learned so far is both encouraging and disappointing. 

The good news is that adults who succeed in earning entry-level manufacturing certifications earned notably higher salaries afterwards. From 2005 to 2018, more than 100,000 adults earned manufacturing certifications developed by two organizations, the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) and Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC). Among those between the ages of 36 and 45, salaries typically jumped from the mid $30,000s before the certification to $45,000 afterward. Depending upon where you live in the U.S. and how many children you’re supporting, that could lift someone out of poverty into the lower middle class. For young adults between the ages of 18 and 25, annual salaries averaged less than $15,000 a year before the certification. Five years after the certification, they more than doubled, surpassing $30,000 a year.

However, only about 40 percent worked in manufacturing afterward. Almost 60 percent did not and were employed in other sectors, from hospitality and food service to retail. That’s a mystery. Why would someone sign up for a manufacturing course, pass the certification exam and not land a manufacturing job? 

It’s especially puzzling when there were a half million manufacturing job openings in 2018, during the period of this data analysis, and there are a million openings today, according to the manufacturers’ association. It should be easy to get a manufacturing job. Moreover, certificate holders who worked in manufacturing jobs earned $10,000 more, on average, than those who didn’t. For Black certificate holders, the annual premium for working in manufacturing was even larger: $15,000. The financial incentive to work in manufacturing is strong. 

One possibility is that these manufacturing certificates aren’t helpful for getting an entry-level job on an assembly line. Certificates are usually not mentioned in help wanted ads. “Most employers have some type of training programs at the hiring stage, particularly for entry-level production team members or operators,” said Gardner Carrick, vice president at the Manufacturing Institute, an education arm of the National Association of Manufacturers. “They are usually looking for a combination of technical aptitude and work ethic.”  

Still, holding a manufacturing certificate is a good indication of technical aptitude. Depending on the course, students must demonstrate that they can operate industrial machines, such as a lathe or a knee mill, and pass a written test.

Another possibility is that certificate holders don’t know how to network with nearby manufacturers who need workers.  Community and technical colleges, where 90 percent of these manufacturing training programs take place, may not be keen to assist certificate students in dropping out of school to work full time. If students leave the college before obtaining an associate’s degree, that could count against the graduation or completion data that colleges must report to the federal government. 

However, most students in manufacturing training programs aren’t enrolled in a degree program. These vocational courses are often housed in the non-credit, continuing education departments of community colleges. A departing student wouldn’t affect the institution’s graduation data in most cases.  It may simply be that it’s hard for a resource-strapped community college to invest in job placement services for a part-time student who has paid only $400 for a six-week night course in the continuing education department. 

“I’ve never heard of a college discouraging a student from getting a job,” said Martha Parham, a spokesperson at the American Association of Community Colleges. Parham told me that the ultimate goal is to help students get good jobs and that colleges are increasing their partnerships with employers in their communities. 

Understanding exactly why a majority of people who earn manufacturing certificates don’t end up in manufacturing jobs is important as policymakers in Washington debate whether to extend federal education grants, known as Pell Grants, to these short-term certificate programs. It may be tempting to subsidize vocational training for low-income Americans, but it makes sense only if the certificates are worthwhile and lead to jobs in the fields they’re training for. 

Another big question mark is that we don’t know how many people try but fail to get a vocational certificate. While a total of 119,000 people succeeded in getting two types of manufacturing certificates through 2018, we don’t know how many failed. It could be twice as many. Analysts at the National Student Clearinghouse were unable to get this data. As with current Pell grants and student loans, taxpayers don’t want to fund a new pool of dropouts. 

This story about manufacturing certificates was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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