Excerpts from a post by Jeff Moad in Manufacturing Leadership:

Consider: The amount of total student loan debt in the U.S. has grown by 150% since 2005 and now sits at an estimated $1.2 trillion.

Consider: Of the estimated 3 million jobs currently unfilled in the U.S., it’s estimated that about 12% require a college degree.

Is it any wonder that most of us know at least one young person—a niece, a daughter, a friend’s son, a neighbor’s son—who has graduated from college carrying a significant debt load and is unable to find the job for which they thought they were being prepared?

Straight-talking TV star Mike Rowe recently described the situation very well. “We’re lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back for jobs that don’t exist.”

Meanwhile, many manufacturers we speak with say they struggle to find young people ready and willing to move into a wide range of job openings, from CNC programming and operations to welding.

A big part of the problem is that, in the U.S. and other developed economies, mothers, fathers, and educators deprecate vocational education and manufacturing careers, steering all but the most academically underachieving students toward four-year college degrees.

In a recent poll conducted by the Edge Foundation in the UK, over a third of students who pursued a vocational route were advised by their school counselors that they would be 'more successful' if they chose the academic pathway, and almost a quarter were told that they were 'too clever' for vocational education. I suspect the results would be very similar in the U.S.

The assumption that a college degree automatically bestowed upon its holder a lifetime of greater financial success and career fulfillment was probably more true for earlier generations that it is today. It was certainly the message I heard over and over when I chose to enroll in university in the 1970s. Although I would become the first in my immediate family to earn a degree, there was never a doubt that I would attend a four-year college. A degree was seen as important evidence of upward mobility not just for me, but for the family.

The assumption that a four-year degree assures financial reward and indicates upward mobility is still there, but it lags reality in a couple of important respects. First, it overlooks the reality that not all young people are suited for, or interested in, an academic track and a white-collar career. Some are smarter about the physical world and better at making things. Forcing them onto a fiercely-competitive academic track seems short-sighted at best and cruel at worst.

At the same time, the assumption that a vocational education and a manufacturing career amounts to some kind of consolation prize is rapidly becoming outdated. With manufacturing output growing in many parts of the developed world, and with technology transforming manufacturing work, the opportunities—and attractive compensation—are there. It’s estimated, for example, that the average annual salary in the oil and gas industry is $98,000.

There are signs that this reality—and the need to reemphasize vocational education--are beginning to sink in. As word of the career opportunities in manufacturing spreads, more school districts are directing resources to redefining and increasing vocational education opportunities. An example in Oakland, CA, where I live is MetWest High School, which focuses on using internships to allow students to explore their passions and pursue careers that align with what they care most about.

A recent Next Generation Leadership survey by the Manufacturing Leadership Council also found that most manufacturers now are sponsoring internship problems of their own, a promising trend.

But the availability of internships and relevant vocational education still lags growing demand. A recent survey in Massachusetts by the Northeastern University School of Law, found that at least 3,500 students were unable to get into public vocational schools in the past two years, with the longest waiting lists in communities with high unemployment and large minority populations.

In New Bedford, where the 10.5% jobless rate is nearly double the state average, the Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School turned away more than 500 students because of lack of capacity.

This is a legacy of many years of disrespect directed by parents and educators toward vocational education and manufacturing careers. It’s time we all give vocational education and the people who make things for a living the honor and status that they deserve.