Only a third of American adults have college degrees; many who don’t consider higher education pointless or deem it unfeasible given other responsibilities such as parenting and making a living.
More specifically, 40% of non-college-degreed adults surveyed in a study commissioned by AEI Center on Higher Education Reform director Andrew Kelly (via GfK North America) consider college not worth the cost. Some of this amounts to personal preference or misperception.
On the latter, research from Georgetown University economist Anthony Carnevale confirms the tuition, loans, and time forgoing income for obtaining some majors (especially in liberal arts, social work, education, and anthropology) often coupled with high unemployment rates (or low salaries) for graduates in these fields can render the majors uneconomical. That’s especially likely if the degree was obtained at a pricy private university.
But most other degrees have impressive long-term returns … and nine out of the 10 most lucrative four-year degrees are in engineering. What’s more, pay disparities (between the salaries of women and men) for many engineering disciplines are relatively small or even nonexistent. But still only about 20% of graduating engineers are female. Visit designworldonline.com and search “Women’s Bureau” for specific quantitative data on this and other STEM professions. More after the hard data on all technical occupations.[table id=3 /]
So what about the more accessible option of community college or apprenticeships for middle-skills employment in high-tech fields — especially for those uninterested or unable to attend a four-year university? This is a significant opportunity for women, as the Brookings Institution estimates of the 26 million jobs in the U.S. requiring STEM expertise, 13 million of them are satisfied with less than a bachelor’s degree.
Here too, women miss out on much higher incomes garnered by relatively short training courses and certification in engineering and STEM-related trades. These include programming and coding, equipment and laboratory management, and machine operating — for which labor-market prospects are very bright. U.S. Department of Education data indicates that for the 100,000 STEM degrees and certificates men earn from community colleges every year, about 16,000 women earn the same.[table id=4 /] [table id=5 /]
Total STEM-related certificates and associates degrees conferred on women is 16,285 for the year studied; STEM-related degrees conferred on men in the same year is 101,231.
It’s a shame, because while college may not be for everyone, options for gainful employment, higher education chosen by the individual, and dignity in career should be.
Two sets of misperceptions about technical certifications persist. Responding to Kelly’s study, non-college-degreed adults overestimate the cost of community college and apprenticeships (by thousands of dollars) and underestimate how much training ultimately yields. In addition, women report perceiving industrial or STEM-related jobs as lonely, performed in loud and dirty settings, or requiring significant physical strength. Of course, that’s untrue of many modern sites for engineering research, design, fabrication, and automated manufacturing — and the high-tech jobs in them.
Programs abound to address these misconceptions, normalize the participation of women in technical fields, and boost STEM enrollment through support of female students in particular. Consider those for women entering technical training: The federal Perkins V Act funds technical education at secondary and postsecondary schools with gender-equity provisions to get more women into nontraditional careers (many STEM) considered so when women are 25% or less of the workforce. The National Science Foundation funds robotics and other apprenticeships for ultimately placing women into manufacturing and advanced assembly positions. The American Association of University Women or AAUW (among other things) provides fellowships and grants to further women in second careers.
Organizations to support women pursuing STEM degrees or professional advancement are perhaps more familiar to Design World readers — the Society of Women Engineers, the Women in Engineering ProActive Network, Women in Manufacturing (WiM), the Association for Women in Science, and the array of organizations to engage college-bound girls in primary and secondary schools.
All of these organizations are stellar. Perhaps we can go further, though — occasionally bridging the gap between the professional college set and the technical-trade set. Even regular Design World editorial considers the perspective of the degreed engineer first because after all, engineers are our readers. But big-picture discussions of STEM employment for women that omits consideration of those not privileged enough to get early encouragement and support (for a straight shot through college) miss half the picture.