EVANSVILLE, Ind., Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Millions of unfilled U.S. manufacturing jobs are pushing high school seniors to consider forgoing traditional four-year universities and enrolling in trade schools instead.
"People are starting to understand that maybe a traditional four-year degree does not always translate into a career," said Cheryl Oldham, vice president of education policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "There are great jobs that don't require that traditional path."
Many of those jobs are in manufacturing. They are skilled positions that require specialized training -- and not a bachelor's degree. Millions are opening around the country, and they're going unfilled.
Some 2.4 million manufacturing positions will remain vacant in the next decade, according to estimates by the Manufacturing Institute in Washington, D.C.
Faced with a shortage of skilled workers, companies and organizations like the chamber are going on the offensive. They're reaching out to young people, suggesting that they enroll in a trade school or apprenticeship program.
"It is very much a relevant conversation taking place across the country," Oldham said. "If we have people without jobs, and there are open jobs, we have to ask ourselves, 'What are we doing to help young people understand what the career opportunities are? And what are the skills they need?'"
This is especially true in areas like the rural Midwest, where many small economies are centered around manufacturing.
State data from one rural county in southern Indiana, for example, shows that about 20 percent of the jobs require a bachelor's degree. By contrast, about 65 percent ask for either a two year-degree or certificate. About 45 percent of the jobs in Perry County, Ind., are in advanced manufacturing.
"We show this data to our kids," said Jody French, the principal of Perry Central High School in Leopold, Ind. "We want to prepare them for a good quality of life and be successful."
Perry Central is one of a handful of U.S. high schools that have embraced vocational training as a central part of the curriculum. The school operates a student-run manufacturing company, and students are encouraged to spend a semester doing an internship with a local business.
"We do feel like we're really ahead of the curve," French said. "I'm really fortunate to work for a school system that thinks outside of the box and allows for these things to happen."
French began taking the school in this direction a few years ago, and it's having an impact on the students.
After two years of learning about all the well-paid manufacturing jobs in his community, Taylor James, a junior a Perry Central, abandoned his goal of attending Purdue University and plans to instead enroll in a local trade school to prepare for a career at Toyota.
"It was hard to get to that point," James said. "My mom and dad both went to Purdue. My grandpa went to Purdue. My parents met at Purdue. But I can make as much money doing this as someone with a four-year degree, and I'll have no debt."
James plans to attend the two-year Career Advancement Partnership program at Vincennes University in Jasper, Ind. The program partners with local companies, and the students spend two days a week working at those companies and three days in classes. In the end, James will earn an associate's degree -- and a job.
Companies like Toyota are investing in these kinds of programs in Indiana and other states where they have factories.
"With as many as 2.4 million jobs to fill in the next decade, we are looking at a number of innovative ways to recruit talented people to our team," Ashley Chatham, a spokeswoman for Toyota, said in an email.
Many of these efforts are just beginning. It represents a marked shift in public opinion. Vocational education and trade schools largely fell out of fashion in America in the early 1980s.
There were studies around that time that American students were academically behind students in other developed nations. The education system responded by transitioning high schools to be more academically focused. At the same time, students were encouraged to go to college.
"That led to a decline in interest in trade schools that lasted well into the 2000s," said Brian Jacob, a professor of education policy and economics at the University of Michigan.
But the rising cost of traditional four-year degrees, an increasing national aversion to student loan debt and the growing number of unfilled manufacturing jobs means that students and institutions are slowly adjusting their approach.
While trade schools are once again are in vogue, the impact of this push to enroll students is unclear. Current data on trade school enrollment is scant.
The U.S. Department of Education's Consolidated Annual Report shows a gradual decline in the number of students enrolled in state-sponsored Career and Technical Education programs. But data is available only through 2014, and it does not track all trade schools or training programs.
"One of the problems with getting accurate data is some trade schools are accredited post-secondary institutions, but not all of them are, so it's hard to track," said Martin Van Der Werf, the associate director of editorial and post-secondary policy at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. "Anecdotally, I think there's been a lot of interest in trade schools."