Editor’s note: Vermont by Degrees is an ongoing series of commentaries by leaders in higher education that explores the challenges and innovations at schools across Vermont.
There is value in education. On the most basic level, we learn to read so we can navigate road signs from here to there or to escape into the worlds created by writers. We learn math so we can properly tip our wait staff and figure out how to double a cookie recipe. We study history so we can avoid repeating mistakes and to better recognize our heritages. Understanding the chemical change of a liquid to a solid helps us know when we need to change into our snow tires and how to make slime at home for our nieces and nephews. Every day, and throughout our lives, we use our education to make decisions or react to situations.
It is not just the practical application of our educations that has an impact on our day-to-day lives. The most commonly quoted statistic about the value of higher education is the increased earnings potential of $1 million with a bachelor’s degree over a high school diploma. That is because of the inextricable connection between education after high school and career opportunities. Another more recent fact comes from the 2016 America’s Divided Recovery study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Their analysis of the job gains by education level after the 2008 recession showed that 99 percent of the jobs created from 2010-2016 went to workers with at least some college education. A mere 1 percent of jobs added to our economy post-recession required only a high school diploma. The most recent Census Population Survey data shows that 74 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher are participating in the labor force, compared to only 57 percent of high school graduates with no college education.
Those are statistics just for individual educational attainment and earnings potential. Societal benefits include a higher tax base to pay for, you guessed it, more education for residents and infrastructure. A well-educated population also tends to have a higher number of patent holders, which some have shown to have a causal relationship with economic growth. Certainly, in Vermont we see how having access to a skilled and educated workforce has a positive impact on business retention and fosters start-up activity.
But here is where I would like you all to take a step further with me to an area of educational focus near and dear to my heart: the technical college education. Yes, I am the president of a technical college, so I benefit from those who pursue a technical degree, but let me tell you why you, too, will benefit from a technical education.
To me, a technical education has two parts: one is a focus on STEM knowledge and skills, and the second is how someone teaches or learns those STEM skills. STEM is science, technology, engineering and math, and the most effective teaching method is through an applied, hands-on or lab-intensive education. So, by my definition, a technical education provides STEM skills through hands-on learning.
This is not merely a theoretic understanding of science, it’s the practical application of theories in a lab by doing, making and creating.
Growth in STEM employment has far outpaced non-STEM employment in the last decade. From 2000-2008, STEM jobs grew three times as quickly as non-STEM jobs. Bureau of Labor statistic projections show a big jump in job growth overall, but STEM job growth will still be almost double non-STEM jobs. Plus, it turns out that the need for STEM skills is expanding beyond just STEM jobs. To quote a study of labor market data, the set of core cognitive knowledge, skills and abilities that are associated with a STEM education are in demand in nearly all job sectors and types of positions. And who’s making more money? Workers who hold STEM degrees enjoy 26 percent higher earnings regardless of occupation than workers in non-STEM fields. They have more job security, too, since they’re less likely to experience joblessness.
The Vermont Tech Alliance published a report of the Vermont Department of Labor’s 2015 analysis of tech in our state. By counting tech jobs in both technology and non-technology industries, they found that 25 percent of all Vermont employment takes the form of tech jobs. That is twice as large as the next-largest category, tourism. That 25 percent of our employment accounts for 40 percent of our wages, by the way. The average wage within what they defined as the STEM Core jobs (discounting STEM Health jobs) was over $72,000. In addition, tech jobs have a 2x multiplier effect on our economy, meaning each job in technology creates and supports two additional jobs.
These are good-paying jobs that make up the bulk of the employment in our state. If we encourage more people to join their ranks through a technical education, it will serve not only the individual, but also our economic growth and our state’s future.
Patricia Moulton is the president of Vermont Technical College and former secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development for the state of Vermont.