College & Workforce Readiness

How a Wichita Lineman Is Changing the Conversation About College Readiness

By Catherine Gewertz — August 30, 2017 3 min read
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I don’t usually start blog posts with apologies, but in this case it’s appropriate.

I’m sorry for the brain worm you’ve probably got now because of the headline here. To express my solidarity, I’ve embedded a YouTube video to support you as you sing the song a few times. Go ahead; get it out of your system.

Now let’s get serious.

Because Wichita linemen—not the one in the song, the real linemen—have something to tell us about important changes that are reshaping the national conversation about college and career readiness.

Look how much a Kansas lineman can earn: $99,000 a year after five years’ experience, according to a recent story in the Wichita Eagle. And no bachelor’s degree is needed.

Why do we care what linemen in Kansas earn? Because these are the kinds of jobs that are getting a ton of attention right now as policymakers discuss what K-12 schools should be doing.

Have you noticed the shift in the conversation? Just a few years ago, the “college for all” and “college readiness” mantras were drowning out nearly everything else. There was—and is—a good reason for that, of course. We need college graduates, and bachelor’s degrees still command a wage premium compared with associate degrees and other credentials.

But researchers have been pointing out that our economy also needs workers in skilled occupations that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. And with the Great Recession barely in our rear view mirror, many are wondering whether student debt and questionable employability are acceptable tradeoffs for the benefits of a college degree.

Where does that leave us? In the middle of a big swell of conversation about workplace and career readiness. There’s a buzz around career and technical education lately. Apprenticeships are high on the national radar. And people seem to be falling in love with the idea of education pathways that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.

Take a look at just a few of the recent articles and reports about it. At the top of the list is a new study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which examines jobs that pay well and don’t require a four-year college degree.

Time magazine weighed in with an exploration of these kinds of jobs. So did Money and Forbes. Business Insider supplies a list of 26 jobs that pay well and don’t require a bachelor’s degree. (And yes, it includes electrical power line installers and repairers, along with casino gaming managers, who average $78,000 annually; detectives and criminal investigators, at $79,600; and commercial pilots, who bring in an average of $84,000 per year. In the number-one spot are air traffic controllers, with salaries averaging $119,000, and only an associate degree required.)

Now before you get too excited, it’s worth noting that there are big regional differences in what people in a given occupation can earn. Take that Kansas lineman, for instance. He might be raking in $99,000, but the national average for that job is $62,650, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Within the occupation are variations in pay, too. The average salary cited by the BLS breaks down this way: installers for telecommunications companies average $53,000, while those who work for electrical companies average $68,000.

As more policymakers embrace these kinds of pathways, I wonder if school staffers on the front lines are using solid information to guide students. How many counselors know about, and use, the Bureau of Labor Statistics data? Are they able to advise students that aiming to become an electrical line installer/repairer is a better bet than shooting for a similar job in the telecommunications industry?

Look what else those counselors and students need to know: It isn’t just pay that varies. It’s job opportunities, too. The number of line-installer/repairer jobs is projected to grow 6 percent nationally by 2024, about average for all U.S. jobs, according to the BLS. But look closer and you will see that very little growth is expected in jobs for telecommunications linemen, but brisk growth (11 percent) is anticipated in jobs for electrical linemen.

There’s more, too. How many counselors and teachers understand which occupations carry a good payoff for a bachelor’s degree, and which ones might even pay better without one? What about the choice of college major? Studies show that decision can matter a lot when it comes to a paycheck, too.

The national conversation is clearly changing. People are trying to do a better job with the “career” side of “college and career readiness.” But this shift is going to put new demands on educators, who are guiding students in making some of the most important decisions of their lives.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.