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The pipeline for future workers in high-end manufacturing and other hands-on fields, from homeland security to firefighting, has sprung a giant leak during the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of students pursuing two-year vocational degrees in precision production has fallen 18 percent this fall, compared with the fall of 2019. During that same period, 15 percent fewer students enrolled in associate degree programs in engineering technology while mechanic and repair technician students were down 16 percent. The number of students enrolled in homeland security, law enforcement and firefighting programs was down 15 percent, which amounts to almost 30,000 fewer students nationally.

“These are hands-on fields which are difficult to teach online,” said Doug Shapiro, executive research director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which counts every college student in the United States and released its final figures for the fall 2020 term in December. As part of this count, the organization also reported the number of students by major and program.

Overall undergraduate enrollment was down a much smaller 3.6 percent, or 560,000 students, from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020. Nearly all of the decline occurred at the nation’s two-year community colleges, which lost 10 percent of their enrollment or more than 540,000 students. Many workforce training and vocational programs take place at community colleges.

vocational degrees

“There are serious implications for this generation of students and for our national economy,” said Shapiro. Young adults who opt not to go or return to college lose an important opportunity to obtain steady, good-paying jobs. For our nation, Shapiro predicts, the loss means “probably significantly lower productivity for our economy.”

I talked with an expert who works with manufacturing programs at 165 community and technical colleges across the country. J. Craig McAtee is the executive director of the National Coalition for Advanced Technology Centers. He agreed that the drop in students enrolled in training programs is both “real” and “terrible” for the economy. “It’s the opposite of what we need,” McAtee said.

“Covid has really wreaked havoc with our students,” said McAtee. “There are many issues with our population being able to justify going to school with taking care of their families. Their older relatives are stuck at home, laid off from hospitality jobs. And our students are picking up the slack, working full-time instead of going to college.”

Graduates with associate degrees in applied science from precision production programs and other two-year technical engineering programs maintain and repair industrial machines and work as robotics and automation technicians. There is also high demand for skilled welders and lathe operators who come out of these programs, McAtee said. This year, the number of students in precision production programs has fallen by more than 10,000 students to 48,000, nationally. There are other apprenticeship pathways to good jobs in these technical careers but community and technical colleges are a big training ground. 

Even in areas of the country that have been hit hard by the virus, colleges are continuing in-person instruction in their welding, building and computer-controlled machine labs, according to McAtee. Colleges have been breaking classes into smaller sections and creating staggered schedules so that students can learn while social distancing. “Manufacturers have not shut down but adjusted to Covid,” said McAtee. “We’ve emulated that in all the labs,” said McAtee. “There’s a lot more hybrid instruction, but it’s not an option to go fully remote. You definitely need the hands on.”

Still, students aren’t coming. Even applications for scholarships to study manufacturing are down 25 percent this year, according to Bill Padnos at the National Tooling and Machining Association.

Meanwhile, employers can’t find enough workers with these specialized manufacturing skills. McAtee said the Department of Defense is “very concerned” that there aren’t enough workers to build 21 ships that have been commissioned. And manufacturers have told him that they can’t find trained workers to produce protective equipment to guard against the coronavirus. 

“There are jobs, jobs, jobs and not enough people to fill them,” said McAtee. “We’re doing everything we can to get the word out.”

The open question is whether the students will come back when the pandemic is over. 

This story about vocational degrees 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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