With the cost of a college education on the rise, more high school graduates are looking for other ways to make a living after graduation.
Trade occupations such as construction work and health sciences are becoming more attractive options for younger people starting out in the workforce, said Penny Thompson, career and technical education coordinator at McFarland High School. Interest in youth apprenticeship programs, which combine academic and technical education through work experience, has doubled from 22 students in the 2014-15 school year to 45 in 2019-20.
“It has changed conversations with families very differently,” said Thompson, referring to parents who may dread the cost of a college education and encourage their children to enter a trade where job opportunities are more abundant. “We see a lot of interest in the trades when the economy is suffering a little bit.”
In February, the school sponsored an engineering and technology open house at which students could talk with experts and discuss job opportunities.
Currently, McFarland graduates who enter health science positions such as dental hygienist and licensed practical nurse are earning $14.41 per hour while architecture and construction workers that covers positions such as electrician and pipefitter are earning an average of $12 per hour.
While many trades are male dominated, Thompson said more females are investigating trade work after high school. She said some McFarland female students have shown an interest working as auto mechanics or construction workers.
“We know we can do better trying to reach that population. It will be awesome,” Thompson said. “It’s happening, but I think we can do a better job.”
Monona Grove High School graduate Marcus Wallace starred on the Silver Eagles football team in 2016 and 2017 as an offensive and defensive lineman. After graduating in 2018, Wallace signed a letter of intent to play football at Northwestern College in Iowa. He lasted there one semester.
“I was third string as a freshman, but I just wasn’t having fun with it,” Wallace said. “For me, that was the whole reason I went to college: to play football.”
Wallace returned to his hometown of Cottage Grove, worked in a convenience store and pondered his options for a career. When he decided a return to college was not for him, he sought work in a trade.
“I’m a hard worker. I don’t want to sit in a cubicle,” Wallace said.
Currently, he has hopes of becoming a pipefitter, which installs, maintains and repairs piping systems used to transport fuel, steam, water and other chemicals. The local pipefitters union advised Wallace to work in construction for a year before proceeding with that goal. Currently, he’s at a construction site pouring concrete.
“You just jump right into it. You start working, and they will train you on the job,” Wallace said.
Pre-apprentice pipefitters start at $19 an hour and after a year, they become apprentices with their hourly wages increasing by $5. After five years, Wallace could become a journeyman, which would earn him even more pay.
Wallace said he is confident he made the right choice to leave college and alter his career path. He also believes his life will turn out much better.
“When I was in college, I might have done social work,” he said. “If I continued on that path, there would have been a lot of stress in my life.”