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The average undergraduate college student carries $37,172 in student debt after earning a degree this month, according to an analysis in the Wall Street Journal. Nearly 71 percent of those earning bachelor’s degrees will graduate with a student loan payment. That figure was 64 percent a decade ago and less than half two decades ago.

There’s something wrong with those statistics. There’s also something wrong with the common perception that to get ahead in life, you need to go immediately from high school to college.

If one is willing to work hard at a physical job while also learning in a classroom environment, a good job with six-figure earning potential is attainable.

That’s the message that employees of the UAW-Chrysler National Training Center are taking to Hazel Park High School students as they consider what they want to do with their lives.

The joint program, School to Work, prepares students for the working world by readying them to enter the skilled trades workforce. It’s a comprehensive program that focuses on all aspects of work, from health and safety and workplace ethics to labor history and relations with management, to hands-on experience at a number of trades taught by highly experienced journeymen.

The two-year program kicks off at the UAW-Chrysler World Class Manufacturing Academy in Warren in September. About 200 sophomores toured the facility earlier this month and got to meet instructors for a glimpse at what they could be learning. About 20 of these students will be selected for the program based on the results of an essay and other criteria.

College, the students were told, is not for everyone, but that doesn’t mean being destined for a lifetime of minimum wage jobs. In many ways, becoming a skilled tradesperson combines the best of the classroom environment with actual hands-on experience in the work world. It is our sincere hope that this program will bring awareness to the students that they can earn a middle-class living working in manufacturing.

Instructors are careful to point out that the program doesn’t promise a job upon graduation. But students who complete the program will have a leg up on others because they will more fully understand what the world of work is about, how much time and effort it will take to attain their goals, and how much they can personally grow and have a sense of accomplishment through pursuing a career in the skilled trades.

They receive high school credit for the program. If they to choose to pursue an apprenticeship opportunity, they can “learn while they earn.”

“It pays to get dirty,” one of our welding instructors told the students. He noted that by 2020, there will be 200,000 openings for welders in the United States.

The pipeline for filling all skilled trades jobs is drying up. The average age of a skilled tradesperson is 55.5 years. One third of these workers will retire in five years. Ninety-five percent will retire in 10 years.

The wall at the facility has a UAW skilled trades logo with the words, “If you can dream it, we can build it.” Together, UAW-FCA US LLC are helping these students build their dreams, dreams that include a lifetime of challenging, satisfying and well-compensated work — without being up to their eyeballs in debt.

Norwood Jewell is a UAW vice president and director of the UAW Chrysler Department.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.

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