Gov. Ralph Northam came to Danville Community College earlier this month with a simple message: A healthy, well-rounded economy is one that provides jobs across a variety of sectors for a wide range of workers with a multitude of skills. It’s a message society needs to hear as the drumbeat of “college for everyone” grows ever louder.
His message was blunt and to the point: “There are a ton of jobs that we don’t need a four-year college education for.” And we would emphatically add that they are jobs that are just as important economically, too.
They’re the jobs DCC and other community colleges across the commonwealth are training people for every day, jobs in the nuclear services industry, welding, precision machining, computer-aided design, IT support, the culinary arts, HVAC design and installation, building trades and a host of other sectors. And they’re not jobs that require a four-year degree.
It is a myth that everyone should go to a four-year college or university, and it’s a myth that has been perpetuated for far too long with dire repercussions for the national economy. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Labor has documented, year after year, the shortage of job applicants in such crucial sectors of the economy as welding, precision machining and HVAC. Workers in those and similar fields are getting closer to retirement, but there aren’t nearly enough people in the pipeline to take their places when the retirement wave reaches full peak.
Why? Because society has conditioned us to see jobs in terms of “good” jobs and “bad” jobs, “white collar” vs. “blue collar.” Parents and many in the educational establishment see “success” only as a obtaining a white-collar, management-track job in an air-conditioned office. Anything else is perceived as failure or, at best, not as good.
During his visit to DCC, Northam heard plenty about the stigma part of society attaches to technical jobs and how we can counter the negative perceptions of such jobs.
Part of the problem, participants in the governor’s roundtable learned, was that young people who would be perfect candidates for highly skilled, highly paid technical jobs often don’t learn about those fields soon enough in their educational careers. As Northam pointed out, Virginia has a severe shortage of career counselors in its public schools, currently one career counselor for every 450 students. “We need more counselors in our schools,” the governor said. “We need to get it down to 250-to-one.”
Another way to combat the negative perceptions of technical jobs is to educate the public at large about their importance, something Patrick County’s director of career and technical education Robin Ferguson pointed out. She suggested to the governor the need for a multi-pronged, statewide educational campaign to shine a spotlight on the importance of these fields to the economy and the advantages to young people searching for opportunities. “There are amazing jobs and opportunities, and [students] can make a good living doing what they doing what they love,” she said.
Indeed there are. That’s a message we need to drive home as strongly as possible in these days of economic change.