Trade Program Enrollment is Up, Community Colleges Not so Much

Matthew Otto is spending his morning as he normally does, working with classmates on a project. They’re students at Wexford-Missaukee Career Technical Center’s welding program.

“My dad was a welder for a very long time,” says Otto. “When I was trying to figure out what type of career to go into he thought welding was the best. I saw a lot of things at home from plows to truck frames and that really got me interested at first.”

Otto says there are several reasons he stayed the full two years in the program. One of them being the three certifications he needed to be a professional welder cost him nothing. In any other route, he might have to pay thousands.

“Normally, only one certification is $500-600 and they give you that for free, per certification, it’s completely free here, ” he says.

A benefit is being offered a job before graduation.

“I’ve actually had a list of job opportunities,” says Otto. “Any good student that’s really trying hard here they get every opportunity to get the best job they want. I’m going to be going into Great Lakes Stainless in Traverse City. They’re a TIG company.”

Otto is one of 700 students at the school. And he’s not the only one taking advantage of a free education as opposed to a post-secondary school.

Since the pandemic, more than one million students have chosen not to enroll in college. Nationally. the total post-secondary enrollment declined by 476,100 students in fall 2021.

It’s still unclear why exactly there’s been a shift from college programs to trades. But there are theories on both sides, aside from the cost difference.

“Students crave that hands-on experience,” says Tim Rigling, Wexford-Missaukee CTE Director. “Throughout the pandemic, and even in the last couple of years, students have really wanted to get into doing things with their hands. And doing things they’re really interested in, in their career fields, so we continue to see huge enrollments coming into the career tech center.”

Rigling says they are constantly getting calls from employers, for people like Otto. The labor shortage has caused a huge demand for people, especially those young and eager to make a high-paying salary or wages.

And the programs can’t even keep up with the number of students wanting to get in. The welding program has 15 kids on the waitlist, as does the Allied Health nursing program.

“More and more students are saying I just want to get started on a career,” says Otto. “And some may go on to college and eventually maybe they take some time off and then decide to go to college, but for now they’re just happy to get a job and there’s many good paying jobs out there.”

Scott Ward, West Shore Community College President, says there enrollment started dropping after the Great Recession.

“Once we got out of that recession everyone saw a decline out of the recession and unemployment dropped, college enrollment dropped,” he says.

His theory is the recent decline in enrollment is due to students taking gap years for mental health reasons.

“Some of our lower college enrollment were due to the mental health stresses that are tied to the great resignation of people and stress at work or school,” says Ward. “We know that we’re seeing that nationally and locally in our K-12 populations.”

Ward is still optimistic that this shift in enrollment is temporary. He considers the decline in enrollment and the missing people in the workforce unsustainable for the economy but for people in general.

“With the Great Resignation people are re-thinking it because it might sound good, but as life expenses continue to add up and even those that thought they had a good plan did not consider inflation, it’s going to have to change,” Ward says. “I’m very optimistic because I think we’re getting down to the grass roots because I often say the most important part of our name is community. We’re here to serve the community so we need to work with our business and industries, work with our partners, to help solve these problems.”