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Blue Collar Back-to-School Advice

by Kathryn Hauer, CFP®, EA

It's back-to-school time! College-prep high school students apply for four-year colleges by following the detailed list of action items provided by their guidance counselors. But what about those students who aren’t sure they want to attend a four-year college? What should those high school students do to prepare for blue collar careers and other jobs that don’t require a four-year degree?

Definition of “Blue Collar”

For the purpose of this article, blue collar refers to people whose jobs, although challenging and interesting, don’t require a four-year college degree. In general, blue collar workers tend to do more physical work than desk work at skilled jobs that pay well. That job set includes trades people (carpenters, ironworkers, cement masons, pipe-fitters, operators, laborers, etc.), transportation workers (truck drivers, public transportation workers), automotive technicians, radiological and other technicians, workers in the oil and gas industry, healthcare technicians, police and safety workers, and others. Many coding and computer jobs fall into the category of blue collar because they offer high salaries but don’t require a four-year degree.

Federal and State Resources

You can find lots of information and assistance on the web to prepare for a blue collar career. In addition to searching with key words like “blue collar,” “vo-tech” and “apprenticeship,” the term “career and technical education” or CTE, will also yield results. The Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), an organization that is committed to increasing awareness of technical education and working to increase government funding for these programs, offers valuable resources on preparing for a blue collar career. The U.S. Department of Labor offers CareerOneStop, where people can look for apprenticeships and CTE opportunities. Many states have their own CTE and apprenticeship associations. In my home state of South Carolina, Apprenticeship Carolina, a part of the SC Technical College System, works to connect employers with apprentices.

Student Loans

According to The Wall Street Journal, the average 2015 college student graduated with about $35,000 in debt. In contrast, blue collar technical training requires fewer years and costs less than a four-year college degree. If you’re attending tech school full-time, you can still qualify for the Pell Grant, Stafford loans and many other grants and scholarships. In some fields, you learn on the job as an apprentice while being paid. Your high school guidance counselor and the admissions department of any technical school will help you figure out how to pay for the education you need; be sure to connect with them to get the information

Do Grades Still Matter?

In a word, yes. Just because your child isn’t planning to compete for a spot at a four-year college doesn’t mean grade point averages and test scores don’t matter. Scholarships take grades into account, and some technical school programs can be hard to get into. Your child can earn $70,000 a year or more in some blue collar careers, so access can be competitive. Additionally, today’s blue collar workers need excellent math, computer and communication abilities, and those skills are demonstrated by earning good grades.

Additional Tips

  • Make the most of vocational programs offered by your school or community. If the school you’re zoned for doesn’t offer them, see if you can attend a nearby school. (For more from this author, see: The Career Benefits of Vocational Training Programs.)

  • Consider summer or part-time jobs in your prospective career field (or a related field) to gain experience.

  • Connect with professors, teachers and instructors at your apprenticeship, union and tech school—they will become excellent job references.

  • Take advantage of the free career resources offered at school, including help with resumes and cover letters as you near course completion.

  • Use career-related technology (LinkedIn, Facebook, chat groups).

Could a Blue Collar Career Be Right for My High-Schooler?

Students who know they want to attend a four-year college should go. But what about the many students who feel no such passion but are under pressure to go to college because that’s what “everybody" does? Should they just go to college and hope they will figure out what to do for a career? In some cases the answer is yes. In many others—such as when a student has little interest in college academics and no idea what career they want to pursue—a better answer, at least financially, is no. Although college-degreed jobs can be great, blue collar careers pay well and offer interesting work. If you’re not sure about college, it could be worth taking a look at some of the careers discussed here.

Kathryn Hauer, a Certified Financial Planner™, adjunct professor at Aiken Technical College, and financial literacy educator wrote Financial Advice for Blue Collar America. Her book discusses basic concepts of money including insurance and taxes, financial traps to avoid, how to pay for college and tech school, and the bright future ahead for blue collar careers. Learn more about ways to improve your financial health and safety at her website.

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