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Governor’s Vo-Tech Push at Odds with Economic Need for More College Grads?

Last updated on 2013.12.19

I have some sympathy for Governor Daugaard's argument that more students should consider vocational training instead of a four-year college degree. I've seen a number of students leave high school and go straight to college as it if they were simply going from grade 12 to grade 13. Many students fail to analyze their skills and strengths and desires until they get bogged down in college courses that they realize don't really inspire them.

But should South Dakota pursue a policy that actively discourages students from seeking a university diploma? The Board of Regents thinks not, and they would offer a simple economic argument: more jobs require college degrees:

According to BLS, the number of positions requiring an associate's degree will climb by 19.1% in the United States by 2018. Similar increases are expected for jobs requiring a bachelor's degree (16.6%), master's degree (18.3%), doctoral degree (16.6%), and professional degree (17.6%). These rates of growth greatly exceed those for jobs requiring on-the-job training only [South Dakota Board of Regents, Placement Outcomes of Regental Students, Agenda Item W, December 15-16, 2011].

South Dakota is already poised to miss that economic gravy train, since we lag the nation in college graduates:

As of 2009, 25.1% of South Dakotans over 24 years old had earned a bachelor's degree or higher. South Dakota currently ranks 34th among all US states by this measure, falling short of the national rate of 27.9%. A mere 7.3% of South Dakotans hold an advanced degree, compared to 10.3% nationally; only six states had a lower proportion in 2009. Since 1990, improvements in the state's national standing in these measures have been marginal. South Dakota's comparative lack of educational attainment no doubt poses socioeconomic problems for the state's population, given the vast advantages in earning power held by postsecondary degree holders. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2010 the median annual salary for high school graduates was $32,677, compared to $40,037 for associate's degree holders, $54,184 for bachelor's degree holders, $66,398 for master's degree holders, and $80,910 for doctoral degree holders. In an increasingly knowledge-based, global economy, South Dakota's comparative lack of degree holders may place the state at a major competitive disadvantage [BOR, Dec 2011].

The governor's emphasis on vo-tech as a viable and meritorious post-high-school option is a good idea if it saves students from taking up space in university seats for a couple years and dropping out with no marketable skills. But we have to thread this needle carefully. Too much emphasis on vo-tech could hobble South Dakota with a second-best labor market. Sure, the James River Valley needs more welders and mechanics, but the economy as a whole needs more knowledge workers.

So here are the big questions: given the evolving nature of the economy, can we afford to direct more students toward non-knowledge-worker vocational training? Or must we focus on turning more unlikely college types into college material? And if the latter is true, how do we take kids who fifty years ago would have been perfectly suited for the trades and turn them into managers and analysts?


  1. Michael Black 2011.12.15

    There has to be jobs in SD to take advantage of the advanced degrees. You can have a doctorate degree and have a tough time getting any job. Much of our economy is based on skilled, manual labor. That is where the jobs are. How many programs have been approved by the BOR that have no job openings in SD?

  2. BIl Dithmer 2011.12.15

    Cory I'm having a real problem with your terminology, and your thinking. First non-knowledge-worker vocational training . No I didn’t attend a trade school but I know a lot of people that have. Non knowledge, really is that what you think about trade schools? Just because these people are learning a trade that they want to spend their lives making a living at doesn’t mean that they have spent less time in the classroom learning that trade. In many cases the class time at a trade school is more intense then that spent to accomplish a career in a four year college. That’s why trade school graduates are so successful when they graduate.

    Lets continue. You say Or must we focus on turning more unlikely college types into college material First, you cant train unlikely students to be either college material or trade school material, it just doesn’t happen that way. But you can work with both of these groups to give them the best opportunity for success in their chosen fields.

    Lets talk a little about trade schools. If you want to be a welder you don’t just suddenly pick up a welder and a mask and start welding. No. There is a lot of math involved, a lot of in class study in the art of material handling. How one material bonds to another of a different type. How much heat is to much and how much is just enough. Add to that book keeping, product design, safety, and customer relations and you have just a start of what these people have to know to make it in their chosen field.

    Electricians, the same thing. Plumbers the same. Wood butchers the same. And don’t even get me started on auto body specialist. Just think new models every year, different kinds of paint that need classroom experience every single year or it wont stick to anything. Different metals, and plastics and how they react to each other and what you can and cant do with either.

    I have given you five of the highest paid professions in this state. None of them could be accomplished without trade schools. There would be nothing worse then a body man that doesn’t know how to use a scale, an electrician that doesn’t understand electrical conductivity, or a welder trying to get copper to stick to iron using glue.

    Try getting a job in any of those professions without trade school and see how far you get.

    The reason trade school graduates are successful is also the very reason that people drop out of college. They went to trade school to learn their professions. They knew in advance what they needed to know and where they had to go to get that “knowledge” to accomplish their goals.

    College on the other hand is just the opposite. You go there expecting something that you cant get. In most cases to get a degree in your field you have to also take classes that don’t have a damn thing to do with anything that you want to learn. That is the number one reason that people drop out of college. Prerequisites. Its not that they cant learn what they want to learn its because they just get tired of jumping through hoops that the state says they need but are really just boring, nonstimulating, and a gigantic waste of time and money to the student.

    If you want to see students excel drop the prerequisites. Get them the education that they want without making them take classes that they don’t want or need. You would not only see an increase in college enrolment but a huge increase in college graduation rates, fewer college loans for less money, and a faster start up time for their professions. Sounds like win, win to me.

    But then what do I know I aint never finished no edjicacin no ferter then two years in college. They didn’t teach what I wanted to learn there so I went home. And I had a full ride to any school that I wanted to go to back then, 1971. Absolutely Nuff Said

    The Blindman

  3. Steve Sibson 2011.12.15

    Cory, thanks for providing support that education is actually free job training for the monopoly capitalists, who are establishing a New Age Theocracy. [Charlie, there is the Neo-con connection for you.]

  4. Jana 2011.12.15

    If the Governor wants to promote the trades through the Tech Schools then he needs to pressure them into getting back to the trades. The tech schools have been acting more like community or junior colleges in the course offerings and the courses that they have dropped.

    Can't really blame them though as it's much more expensive to teach a trade than it is to offer accounting, marketing, etc classes where the expense is a room and a faculty member. The problem is that these programs are duplicating what is offered in our State Universities and the commitment to the trades is declining.

    Take the internal politics out of the game and end the chasm between the Regental system and the public school run tech schools and look at what's the most efficient and best for the students, employers and taxpayers.

    Let the Universities offer 2 year associate degrees in programs where they already offer 4 year degrees and have the tech schools focus on the trades and technology. Given the budgetary challenges facing the public school and university systems, turn all post secondary education over to the Board of Regents and let the public school systems focus their efforts and funds on K-12.

    I'm thinking that this discussion happened a few years ago, too bad the discussion ended when the politics started dictating sound policy.

  5. Joseph G Thompson 2011.12.15

    Don't take this the wrong way but I think you have spent too many years in the academic world.

    I believe in higher education, if I didn't would not have persued one myself nor would I have paid for my son's education thru a Masters degree.

    You, however, are wrong when it comes to vocational school. This nation was built on production not service. Skills that used to be taught on the job by employers are now taught in vocational schools, and most are in high demand not just in South Dakota but across the nation. The nation has a glut of school teachers and lawyers,but a severe shortage of automobile mechanics, tool and dye makers, welders, ect.

    For years I have encouraged young people with a vocational apptitude to attend a vocational school in the area that interests them, work in the area for awhile and then complete a business or professional degree.

    We have enough managers and analysts. If that is all we produce, what are they going to manage and what are they going to analyze?

    As for you Mr. Sibson, you and your concerns about new age theocracy be damned. A well educated people, whether it is vocational or college, is a necessity if this nation is going to continue to be the greatest nation the world has ever seen. If you and your ilk truly believe half of what you write, you are a greater threat to the future of the United States and our way of life than Cori and his far left views.

    Merry Christmas to all, on my way to San Diego to spend Christmas with my grandchildren.

    Joesph G Thompson

  6. Steve Sibson 2011.12.15

    Today, we have millions upon millions of young Americans that are enslaved to student loan debt for the rest of their lives. They were promised a bright future, but instead most of them are discovering that they are going to be working really hard to pay off financial predators for decades to come. Unfortunately, for most college graduates a diploma is simply a ticket to a crappy job and a lifetime of debt slavery.

    The following are 35 shocking facts that prove that college education in America has become a giant money making scam....

  7. Bill Fleming 2011.12.15

    "Today, we have millions upon millions of young Americans that are enslaved to student loan debt for the rest of their lives."

    No we don't Steve.

  8. Jana 2011.12.15

    Today we have millions of citizens who are enslaved to:

    Home mortgages
    Health insurance
    Life insurance
    Transportation costs
    Utility bills
    Telecommunication costs

  9. Steve Sibson 2011.12.15

    Today we have millions and millions of children who enslaved to the national debt thanks to our sin of coveting. Do you think it is time to do something about the New Age Theocracy? Or is it too late?

  10. Steve Sibson 2011.12.15

    "No we don’t Steve."

    Then Bill, how many?

  11. Bill Fleming 2011.12.15

    Cory, perhaps you could start a thread for the exclusive purpose of debating Sibby on his New Age theocracy baloney. That way we can keep it all in one thread and he won't feel compelled to interrupt all of your other conversations with his obsession over it.

  12. Bill Fleming 2011.12.15

    No one is "enslaved" in the US, Sibby. Slavery is illegal in our country. If you don't want to pay your bills, don't pay 'em.

  13. troy jones 2011.12.15


    Those items in your list are privileges (unless you think someone else should be enslaved to provide them) and working to pay for them is also a privilege.

    Let's not denigrate real slavery and real rights by including privileges.

  14. Steve Sibson 2011.12.15

    So we have a far-left Marxist and a GOP Establishment using political correctness to more "S" words. And to top that, we have a ecumenical unifying free-thinker saying we can't talk about the New Age Theocracy. Only at Madville?

  15. Bill Fleming 2011.12.15

    As always I'm arguing for less heat and more light, Sibby, your and Larry's histrionics notwithstanding.

  16. Bill Fleming 2011.12.15

    Larry, yes, your link underscores my point. Slavery is illegal.

  17. Steve Sibson 2011.12.15

    "If you don’t want to pay your bills, don’t pay ‘em."

    By making someone else pay for them you are using coveting to enslave them. Yes, that should be illegal.

  18. Bill Fleming 2011.12.15

    Nonsense. Nobody can make anybody pay them. The whole slavery argument is hysterical, bogus, paranoid bull puckey.

  19. Jana 2011.12.15

    Good point Troy.

    Of course you knew that my comment was directed at Sibby's comment of " ...young Americans that are enslaved to student loan debt for the rest of their lives" when I referenced enslavement.

  20. Bill Fleming 2011.12.15

    Sounds like a job for the OWS crew, Chris.

  21. Bill Fleming 2011.12.15

    Chris S. that right there is why there should never be tort reform. Any hospital who has people thrown in jail for being sick should get the livin' daylights sued out of them.

  22. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.12.15

    Messrs. Dithmer and Thompson, I take your chastisement seriously. I don't want to talk down vo-techs: as I said, I actually talk them up to students.

    Bill D., Joseph, you're absolutely right: we've got to have plumbers, electricians, welders, etc. I have huge respect for my dad, who at age 71 can do much better work in all three of those areas than I can. And getting a kid to quit drifting and turn himself into either a focused college student or a focused vo-tech student is a step in the right direction.

    But I'm interested in two points. The smaller is the political. Governor Daugaard and the Regents, in the two texts to which I point, are sending signals that could conflict. Jana notes how this political conflict can distract Pierre and various local interests from figuring out the best policy. That's important.

    The bigger point is the economic question: what is the right focus for our educational system? Can we do both? Can we expand enrollment in both vo-tech and university? Can we get more young people into those skilled trades that we need to fill and still have people left over to increase the labor pool and opportunity in the areas that the Regents are saying we need to really grow the economy?

  23. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.12.15

    By the way, Joseph, the nation was built on production, not services... but the BLS data the Regents cite predicts that production occupations are one of just two major industry sectors that will see employment decline over the next fewer years The other sector losing jobs: farming, fishing, and forestry. Contruction and extraction are predicted to see 13% job growth, behind only service occupations (13.8%) and professional and related occupations (16.8%).

  24. Steve Sibson 2011.12.16

    "Nobody can make anybody pay them."

    Yeah, ever hear of taxpayers paying for government backed mortgages? Or is the debt simply passed on to future generations of indoctrinated workers of big corporations with huge student loans?

  25. Bill Fleming 2011.12.16

    Steve, ever hear of Chapter 7, Chapter 11, and Chapter 13? ( these are not in the Bible.)

  26. Steve Sibson 2011.12.16

    Bill, I already understand you New Age Theocrats view your pleasures to be a higher priority over your responsibilities.

  27. Bill Fleming 2011.12.16

    Don't get distracted Sibby ( you have ADHD?)

    Were still in the process of disproving your bogus, hyperbolic claim about slavery. (Just calm down, breathe deeply, and pay attention grasshoppah.)

  28. Steve Sibson 2011.12.16

    Bill, all you have done is move the salvery from the debtor to the taxpayer through the sin of coveting. Lets have fun and let someone else pay for it. Being enslaved by debt is a good way of putting it. It is you who uses distractions to sidetrack the conversation away from the truth. But that is what trolls do.

  29. Bill Fleming 2011.12.16

    No, Sib. I just call you out when you interrupt otherwise sane conversations with your happy unicorn ranch horsesh*t.

  30. Steve Sibson 2011.12.16

    Bill, thanks for proving my point.

  31. Tim Higgins 2011.12.16


    I too take exception with your looking down your nose at Vo-Tech education. This type of education is absolutely essential. It might take an engineer to design whatever but it takes a mechanic to keep it running. I know several engineers who do not know which end is the business end of a screw driver. Several years ago when my uncle was working at Hub City Iron in Aberdeen the machinists went on stike. So the college boy engineers went into the production area. The strike did not last enen an 8 hour shift, management (college boys) were able to figure out what was going on and ended the strike. Best 3 ring circus my uncle ever attended.

    The most handy people people I know someone who can fix anything or make pretty much anything are vo-tech graduates. In fact we have several of those kinds of individuals right here in Madison. You might even know one Craig VanHove.

  32. Michael Black 2011.12.16

    How can we expect kids to know the track they want to go down in life at graduation? I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up...neither do some of my classmates.

  33. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.12.16

    Tim, look again at my comment above. I'm not looking down my nose at vo-tech. I'm asking about the economic prospects. We need those handy people. I often wish I were one of those handy people. But the market for those people is not increasing. The people for those people isn't driving economic growth (at least that's the suggestion for the BOR numbers). Maybe we don't need the economic potential of advanced-degree jobs in South Dakota. Maybe we can get along just fine with good plumbing and wiring and well-tuned cars. But too much focus on vo-tech and not enough on producing more college graduates could leave our economy stuck in second gear compared to states that provide more opportunities in those "knowledge economy" jobs (and I use that term not as a pejorative but as a term to distinguish those jobs that spend much more of their time dealing with data and ideas than with physical objects).

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