Thursday, January 26, 2012

21st Century Skills and Careers: Licenses and Certificates

I guess it was only inevitable when one has a brother currently majoring in astronomy and physics, a father with a doctorate in American History (we'll gloss over the current obsession with squirrels), and a mother whose work on her master's thesis was about communication styles between the "athletes" of the World Wrestling Federation.

I am a nerd, and an ecclectic one, at that.

Other people listen to techno-music or jock-jams when they are sweating on the stairmaster.  I get my excercise groove on by listening to NPR's Planet Money podcast.  This is a podcast that discusses economics--how money and commodoties play out in the United States and abroad.  I enjoy it because the journalists are able to make complex theories and ideas simple and relatable to everyday life.  One of the more recent ones caught my eye (or ear, as the case was) in that it discussed the changes that have occured in manufacturing jobs in the last several decades.

In a two-part series, the journalists visit Greeneville County, South Carolina, a place that used to be home to a plethora of manufacturers.  People were able to make good, living wages with very little education.  Oftentimes, men and women would drop out of high-school and start working in the factories at 16 or 17 years old, because there was little use for staying in school when they could live comfortably off of their stable company job.  The jobs would often involve heavy labor, but workers could even get by without knowing how to read. 

Flash forward to today.  In the story, the journalist talks about Ralph and Maddie  Neither has anything beyond a high-school education.  Maddie still does hands-on assembly line work, placing parts in machines and pressing buttons.  Ralph, however, works with microscopes and highly technical computer tools:
"Ralph is the future of manufacturing. He has adapted to the new technology on the factory floor. But for Maddie, the pace of change has been bewildering. She is still adjusting, and she will have to keep adjusting as the machines grow more sophisticated and the work less physical." (source:
In modern manufacturing and assembly-line work, it is all about technology, computers, math and science.  There are still plenty of machines, but they are very complicated, expensive machines that take a great deal of expertise and knowledge to operate.  In fact, in a more humorous moment in the story, the journalist is told that he would not even be considered for hiring, even though he has a bachelor's degree and some decent computer knowledge.  The skill set for these manufacturing jobs is that specific:
"To become like Ralph, I'd have to learn the machine's computer language. I'd have to learn the strengths of various metals and their resistance to various blades. And then there's something I don't believe I'd ever be able to achieve: the ability to picture dozens of moving parts in my head. Half the people Tony (Ralph's boss) has trained over the years just never were able to get that skill.
And if you don't get that skill, a mistake on this machine can be catastrophic. All the work that's done here happens on a scale of microns. One micron is four-hundred-thousandths of an inch. A human hair, for example, is 70 microns thick. Here, you cannot be off by one-tenth the thickness of a hair.
'A 7- or 8-micron wrong adjustment in this machine cost us a $25,000 workhead spindle,' Young says. 'Two seconds, we could lose $25,000.'" (source:
The story back to Maddie, the worker who has high-school skills but not much technical training.  She is working on a machine that is more "old-school" than some of the newer, more highly complex machines.  Right now she has a job because to design and manufacture a machine that could do her job would cost more than her annual salary.  However, looming over her and all the other workers in her position is the fear that could change--that at some point it could be cheaper to have a machine than a worker.  Without more extensive technical training, she could someday be out of a job. (source:

In a previous post, I talked about the rise and focus of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers.  I have also written about the emerging mission and focus of school counselors, that of preparing students for college and career readiness and helping them to build 21st century skills.  If we look at this new trend in manufacturing, how do we, as school counselors, steer some of our students in a direction that will help them to find stable and meaningful work?  I always tell my students that you do not necessarily need to go to a four-year college after high-school, but you do need some plan, some training, beyond graduation in order to find a job in the modern era.  For many of these manufacturing-tech jobs, you do not need a bachelor's degree or even an associate's.

Interestingly enough, there are organizations out there looking at the amount of money one earns depending on various post-secondary education options.  According to an article through American Radio Works, there are a wide variety of license and certificate programs that can lead to stable careers in a variety of fields.  Licenses and certificates are often shorter programs than an associates degree and only focus on the classes needed to learn a particular skill, whether that is information technology, HVAC, or dental workers.  Further, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 43% of those with licenses and certificates make more than those with associates degrees, and 27% make more than those with bachelor's degrees.  31% of those with associates degrees make more than those with bachelor's degrees.

What does this tell us?  It tells us that a four-year degree is not necessarily the only path to a stable career and success.  For some of our students, they will find themselves to be just as successful if not more successful if they simply graduate from high school and then receive specialized training in a specific field.  We have students who have struggled with academic coursework their entire time in school.  We have students who prefer to be hands-on with their work--they want to be directly engaged with wires or metal.  We have students who love to be able to be in motion the entire day.  We have students who are not quite ready for a two or four year academic degree at this stage in their lives, but who want and need to get a few more skills to enter the workforce.  These license and certificate programs are a strong option.

Mike Rowe, the producer and host of the television show, Dirty Jobs, lobbied congress for more information and recruiting of skilled labor--labor that is trained in license and certificate programs.

Similarly, President Obama, in his recent State of the Union Address, stressed the fact that there are jobs out there, highly skilled manufacturing jobs, that cannot be filled because workers lack the necessary training, a fact confirmed by the American Composite Manufacturing Association in a follow up article.  Certificate and license courses can help to fill these positions.

Where can you get more information about these types of programs?  First, I would recommend looking into your local community-college.  For us here in the Northern Virginia area, we have NOVA, and the list of degrees and certificate programs is quite extensive, everything from radiology certificates to multimedia design certificates.  Another trend to be on the look-out for in the next couple of years are emerging "free-college" online schools.  As of now, these schools, such as University of the People, are not accredited, but that could be changing, and they are teaching valuable skills in areas like information systems and technology.

We may have to broaden our definition of "college" when we discuss "college and career readiness."  For me, I believe it is some structured program after high-school that earns a student a credential of some kind.  Licenses and certificates fit the bill, in my book, and could be the best pathway possible for some students to find success and satisfaction in the work they end up doing every day. 

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