As you may have noticed yesterday, I’ve been noticing some water cooler-level chatter over ‘value’ of higher education. Sarah Kliff brings to my attention a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (+1 for using highfalutin’ in a sentence, and click through for the graph!) measuring employment over time for workers with vocational education compared to general education. The NBER found:
“Vocational education has been promoted largely as a way of improving the transition from schooling to work, but it also appears to have an impact on the adaptability of workers to technological and structural change in the economy,” the paper explains. “As a result, the advantages of vocational training in smoothing entry into the labor market have to be set against disadvantages later in life.”
According to the NBER such programs may boost unemployment prospects in the near-term, especially for those who might be disinclined to pursue a traditional post-secondary education. Yet selling the wares of vocational schooling as a panacea for long-term employment security may be misguided at best.
I grew up in a small town in southern Indiana, and these types of discussions come up a lot. For many there job opportunities hinge on the existence of a small, but important, manufacturing sector or the regional coal mines. While neither requires vocational training at a technical university per se, places like Ivy Tech and the local junior college have invested heavily in vocational programs for employment in other sectors within the state. Furthermore, it’s quite common to give career advice for students there to go into two-year vocational programs. I don’t mean to insinuate that this is necessarily a bad thing. Clearly there is a demand for better trained entry-level workers in some industries. My concern is that those who do complete such programs may think they’ve insulated themselves from future employment uncertainty in the same way that traditional higher education typically does. As the NBER study shows, that doesn’t seem to be the case.