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Having grown up in Detroit, one memory that has stayed with me through all these years is the abundance of trade schools throughout the city. They seemed to be almost as plentiful as traditional high schools.

The vo-tech programs these schools offered were preparing students to become self-sufficient, productive members of their community. I saw friends build happy, fulfilling lives by working in the trades and I understood the enormous effect these vocational schools had on our city and state.

But, unfortunately, I also witnessed the depletion of the skilled trades over the past few decades. Instead of offering high school students multiple pathways to good-paying jobs, we started pushing all graduates to attend a four-year university. This was a mistake that we are paying for today.

There are nearly 100,000 unfilled jobs in Michigan that require vocational training, and 15,000 new job opportunities are expected each year through 2024. These are jobs that need to be filled in order to keep Detroit moving forward. The construction boom in Detroit, including public projects such as the Gordie Howe Bridge, will be hampered because of the lack of skilled workers.

Trade schools prepare students for these in-demand jobs such as construction managers, pile-driver operators, plumbers, pipefitters, steamfitters, electricians, millwrights, brick masons, mechanics, carpenters, welders, crane operators and many, many more occupations. Students can also pursue careers in a wide range of other industries such as advanced manufacturing, health care, energy and information technology. What awaits these students are a wealth of opportunities.

The average salary for these in-demand jobs is $51,000. Even more appealing, these occupations do not require a four-year degree. Many skilled trades require a certification that can be completed within two years, and students can start working after high school while they earn their degree. So students face 70 percent less in average debt if they pursue this path and they can make money while doing it. This is a path worth pursuing for many students.

Thanks to the leadership of Gov. Rick Snyder and other stakeholders, the number of students entering the skilled trades has been increasing. Nearly 5,000 students in Michigan have enrolled since 2015. While that’s good news, there’s much work to do.

Funding for skilled trades programs is notoriously substandard. When the Randolph Career Technical Center, one of the state’s largest trade schools, opened in Detroit in August 2017, it was funded by an array of non-profits and private businesses, not by the state or local governments. While the state and local governments fund traditional schools, they do not provide adequate funding to even keep trade schools open. Why are we relying on private businesses and non-profits to fund these essential programs?

If policymakers truly understood the impact trade schools can have in our communities, they would fund them as needed. If students and their parents understood the opportunities trades schools present, then there would be more students pursuing that path. We all need to realize the potential of reestablishing trade schools throughout Detroit and the state. Then maybe they’ll be almost as plentiful as traditional high schools again, preparing thousands of students in the state to become self-sufficient, productive members of their community.

Sydney Ross is the co-CEO of Great Lakes Wine and Spirits.

 

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