COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | WILLIAM SMYTH

Workplace reality hits the class of 2014

Thousands of young Americans and their proud family members and friends celebrated their graduation from colleges and universities last month. For many, especially those who are the first to graduate from college in their family, it is one of life’s milestones.

Those college students then face the reality of the working world. Now, a few weeks after graduating, they are searching for relevant, meaningful employment. They are navigating their way through salary expectations and living arrangements after college.

In many cases, reality is not matching their dreams.

For several years, the Accenture College Graduate Employment Survey has examined the expectations and experiences of U.S. graduating college students. What the research tells us is that too many college graduates are underemployed and working in jobs that do not require their college degrees.

It’s not because college students and their families are unrealistic about career options. Three-quarters of all students who graduated in 2014 researched the availability of jobs in their field before declaring their college major, up from 65 percent in 2012.

Nevertheless, nearly half of recent college graduates consider themselves underemployed in a job that doesn’t match their college degree. In some cases, the job doesn’t require any college degree. Four out of 10 recent college graduates are earning annual salaries of $25,000 or less.

These grads leave college with an increasing debt burden on themselves and their families. College debt is the second highest form of private debt in the United States, second only to mortgage debt.

Graduates owe $1.2 trillion, and that figure increases every year. Nearly 45 percent of 25-year-olds have outstanding college loans, with an average debt above $20,000. It affects their employment decisions and their ability to establish independence.

A traditional four-year college education leading to a degree is not the only path to career success. High-skill occupations are facing a shortage of qualified workers, including construction. In many construction careers, workers earn more than someone with a college degree after completing their four- to five-year apprenticeship-training program, such as the one offered by the Associated Builders and Contractors of San Diego.

Many capable, ambitious young people fail to consider apprenticeship training for a skilled profession. They might be surprised at the high level of training and sophistication of the math and science skills required to succeed.

The students in the ABC San Diego Apprenticeship Training Academy find their math and reading skills pushed to the limit as they learn to analyze, interpret and implement sophisticated construction plans.

They learn management, logistics, teamwork and personnel skills, just like any university business major. Many graduate and take on supervisory roles or start their own businesses and create more jobs.

Apprentices are employed during their training, learning through supervised on-the-job training while earning full-time wages and receiving employment benefits such as health insurance. After working all day long, apprentices also attend classes and participate in hands-on lab work two evenings a week for four to five years. These programs aren’t for everyone.

At the end of their apprenticeship training, these men and women become skilled craft workers with certifications that document their skill and experience. They earn a good living with opportunities for continuing career growth. They are not burdened by crushing debt, like many of their peers with college degrees.

In June, 75 men and women graduated from the ABC San Diego Apprenticeship Training Trust program as skilled craft professionals, as family and friends cheered them on. Some 80 percent of them were employed full-time in their chosen profession the day they graduated. None of them will be paying back student loans for thousands of dollars.

Apprenticeship programs are not limited to construction trades. There are dozens of apprenticeship programs in fast-growing professions such as health care, information technology and law enforcement.

The California Division of Apprenticeship Standards database provides information about available apprenticeship programs organized by craft and geographic region at http://www.dir.ca.gov/databases/das/aigstart.asp. Interested candidates can look at the qualifications and apply.

Getting a college degree requires initiative, diligence, drive and perseverance. So does completing an apprenticeship training program. The reward can be a lifelong career in your chosen field, a good income, no college debt, and the satisfaction of a job well done every day.


Smyth is chief financial officer of Sherwood Mechanical and chairman of the Associated Builders and Contractors San Diego Apprenticeship Training Trust board of trustees.

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