- - Monday, April 23, 2018

After decades worrying about a shortage of good-paying jobs, America has too many — manufacturing, construction and increasingly service businesses can’t find the qualified workers needed to expand. This is a significant barrier to permanently restoring 3 percent to 4 percent growth so that the nation can meet the needs of an aging population, finance its commitments to defend freedom — through our military and costly instruments of soft power — and invest in infrastructure and R&D without becoming dangerously indebted.

America is overinvesting in traditional higher education — it spends a much higher share of GDP than do other countries but gets too little return on these resources. Employers report that 4 in 10 graduates lack the critical thinking skills necessary for entry-level professional work, and too often four years of college adds little to students’ analytical abilities.

No one should be surprised. Universities are pouring millions in attractive amenities and big time sports. Students spend about one-third less time in class and studying than in the 1960s but have plenty of leisure to demonstrate against alleged micro aggression, sexism and racism of conservative professors and engage in social activism enabled by university presidents bent on molding intolerant liberals.

With nearly 70 percent of high school graduates enrolling in two- or four-year colleges, too many lack the academic abilities and interest for the abstract study that goes into calculus, literary criticism or economics. Many would profit more from a skills-based apprenticeship or a year or two of hands-on, focused training.

Parents and students shouldn’t be blamed, because employers give preference to college graduates in hiring for many jobs that hardly require the esoteric stuff we do at universities — for example, insurance adjusters, cellphone sales, makeup artists and the like. Diplomas are used as evidence applicants can follow instructions, navigate a bureaucracy and show up every day — the only real requirements other than a big loan or rich parents for obtaining a B.A. these days.

Finishing college pays 73 percent more than going to work after high school but that’s an average, which includes engineers, accountants and the like. Many land in low-paying dead-end jobs and saddled with a lifetime of debt when more practical alternatives are available.

The Department of Labor certifies apprenticeship programs. Usually completed in well less than four years, those generally offer about $15 an hour while students take courses and get hands-on experience. On completion, 87 percent of students are in positions that pay an average of $60,000 a year — for college graduates the average is about $50,000 and subtracting the above-mentioned skills-based majors, the college average is a lot less.

About two-thirds of apprenticeships are in construction and manufacturing, but President Trump sees great opportunity in the service sector and has doubled the DOL budget for cultivating apprenticeships. Private actors like Wells Fargo, professional services firm Aon PLC and the National Restaurant Association are building out programs.

In the tech sector, Course Report connects students to some 95 coding schools — those annually matriculate about 23,000 graduates through programs that last about 14 weeks, cost about $11,000 and place graduates in jobs with starting salaries averaging nearly $71,000.

Through the online portal Coursera, Google offers an 8-to-12 month IT Support Professional Certificate program that connects graduates with employers like Bank of America, Walmart and GE Digital.

More formalized schools are emerging like Holberton School in San Francisco, which trains software and operations engineers in two years and the fees are 17 percent of students’ internship and first three years post-graduation earnings.

These less-expensive alternatives are not available in enough industries and enough places, making the vast network of community colleges and state four-year colleges the default option for most high school counselors and parents. Many are too often located far from potential students in economic depressed areas hard hit by globalization.

The available seats in many programs fill up too quickly — often the one-to-two-year programs noted above have acceptance rates that rival Ivy League institutions.

Redirecting federal and state funding from higher education is sorely needed to encourage more of these innovative programs — fewer students in college and more in skills-based training would make young workers more productive and prosperous, less indebted and better enabled to embark on independent adult lives.

Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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