Maine needs more young people to skip four-year degrees and work in the trades


High school guidance counselors, parents and popular culture have spent decades telling young people that the key to success is a bachelor’s degree. The result is soaring student debt and a persistent disconnect between Mainers’ skills and in-demand jobs.

The Maine Department of Labor estimates that over the next several years our state will have annual job openings for 984 truck drivers, 625 carpenters, 482 maintenance workers, 356 electricians, 254 plumbers, 244 painters, 204 HVAC technicians, 189 welders, 131 machinists, and on and on and on.

A glance at any job board in Maine confirms that hundreds of employers are eager to hire anyone with technical skills in the trades — and most companies offer starting wages above $15 an hour, climbing above $20 or even $25 with a few years of experience. Meanwhile, job growth for those with four-year and more advanced degrees, outside of a few industries like health care, has been lethargic.

We aren’t even close to meeting the demand for skilled tradespeople. In 2013, the most recent year for which we have data, Maine’s Community College System awarded 624 credentials (certificates and associate’s degrees combined) in manufacturing, construction, repair, and transportation-related fields. Even if all those graduates took jobs in Maine, hundreds of vacancies would remain.

Now consider this: Last fall, just at the University of Maine in Orono, 32 students were majoring in theatre, 76 in studio art, 25 in philosophy, 21 in music, 18 in music performance, and seven in art history. At the University of Southern Maine the numbers are even greater — 292 students are majoring in the arts and 402 are studying in the humanities.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with art, music or philosophy. But as the middle-class thins and good jobs become scarce, shouldn’t more students be focusing on marketable skills instead of racking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt for degrees with little real-world value?

For those with a penchant for the humanities and the arts, internet sources — not to mention local clubs and theater groups — offer endless cultural edification free of charge.

Though relatively few Mainers are training in the construction trades, it’s not for lack of opportunity. Maine’s Community College System offers a host of flexible programs. Credits are easy to transfer from one institution to another, tuition ranks among the lowest in the country (thanks, of course, to significant taxpayer support), and programs are constantly being tweaked, eliminated, or created based on feedback from the business community.

How many young people in Maine with an interest in cars, boatbuilding, carpentry or a thousand other career-oriented fields have been told they need to earn a four-year degree to make a good living, only to graduate from college with crushing debt and dim job prospects?

It’s time to stop telling young people that a diploma from a community college is any less valuable than a bachelor’s degree from a four-year school. In a lot of cases, it isn’t.