As I write this, students are back in school for the new year, and thoughts of many of us return to those days. Thoughts may also focus on your own children’s post-high school education. If you have kids who might attend college and want to help them with the finances, you better be thinking seriously about this future.

As parents or grandparents, have you considered an industrial education instead of a college education for your kids or grandkids? It’s likely you have wished someone did if you have ever tried to hire skilled workers for your plant. When I had this conversation with my son, I pointed it out in simple math. If you earn $25,000 per year for four years while others are paying $25,000 per year, you are $200,000 better off at the end of four years. Needless to say, that’s probably a low-end estimate of the differences.

I believe we need a cultural paradigm switch, and we may need to clean house at local high schools where snobby counselors continue to encourage everyone to attend college. In his regular column, Walter Williams, a college professor from Virginia’s George Mason University, states simply, “Most college students do not belong in college.” He and Robert Samuelson, a Washington Post columnist, assert that “it’s time to drop the college-for-all crusade.”

Due to the fact that college costs increase by much more than the cost of living – about a 450% growth since 1982 – college education is continuing to lose its value. Add to that the weak courses such as “Philosophy and Star Trek” offered by Georgetown University, it’s no wonder we have a “six-digit number of college-educated janitors in the U.S,” as reported by Ohio University professor Richard Vedder, who also indicates that there are “one-third of a million waiters and waitresses with college degrees.” In 2012, about 44% of college graduates worked jobs that did not require a college degree.

It’s time to question business as usual and find a way to get more students interested in vocations rather than professions. How can we do this? Here are a few thoughts from me or greater minds than mine.

  • Provide early exposure to all students to let them know about job opportunities in manufacturing. This could/should happen in the schools, but groups like the Girl Scouts are another possibility.
  • Better utilize existing vocational-training programs in high school.
  • Provide some “diversity training” to high school counselors to encourage them to advise kids (particularly those less likely to excel in an academic setting) that vocational training is a good option.
  • Encourage more women to enter the manufacturing workforce. Only about 26% of the manufacturing workforce in the U.S. is female, compared to 50% of the overall workforce.
  • Companies should provide appropriate vocational training for new hires.

The facts are that the majority of new American jobs over the next decade will not require a college degree, according to the U.S. Labor Department. A USA Today analysis estimated that about 2.5 million middle-skill jobs – requiring high school but not college training – will need to be filled between 2014 and 2017. Some of this is coming from the retirement of baby boomers. In our local region around Pittsburgh, a historically industrial area, it is expected we could lose about 8% of the 1.2-million member workforce as older workers retire.

In addition to workforce losses due to retirements, another issue we are experiencing is diminishing labor-participation rates. In June, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 62.6% of adult Americans are working or actively looking for a job. This is the lowest labor-participation rate in 38 years. A separate White House report showed something similar. Looking at prime-age (25-54) males in the workforce, the report showed that 98% of this group was employed 60 years ago. Today, this number is 88%.

It’s clear our work is cut out for us. We need to increase the number of people seeking vocational training, encourage more women to pursue manufacturing and get more able-bodied people working. Consider what part of this challenge you can invest your resources into. After all, a small rudder can turn a large ship.