If you’ve ever played “The Game of Life” board game where you try to amass a fortune by retirement, you are familiar with these starting choices: get a job out of high school or go get a four-year degree. We all likely heard the same options everywhere growing up, from parents to school counselors.
In the real game of life, there are a dizzying number of choices with no one-size-fits-all career path. But according to the educational nonprofit The Hechinger Report, high schools have tried to make a one-size-fits-all education that makes it tougher for those with only a diploma to be work ready for many jobs.
Since the 1980’s high schools have shifted away from an emphasis on vocational training to offer a more broad education to all students. The shift was made to level the playing field allowing high school students equal opportunity where previously, students were siphoned into college, vocational, and home economics tracks based on their race, class, gender, and other considerations. The result is a move towards equality but a lack of focus in any particular area. The shift in high school curriculum means that additional education of some kind is needed to find a quality job post-graduation.
The traditional answer has been to pursue a formal four-year education, but there are other paths—that we didn’t see in the board game—available to suit different interests, skills, and goals.
One often-overlooked option is an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships offer a combination of on-the-job training and classroom instruction, allowing the opportunity to learn career skills while earning a wage. Apprenticeships are great for people who prefer hands-on learning and need money immediately.
There are also trade school or vocational certification programs, which offer training in specific trades like plumbing, electrician work, HVAC installation, software development, and many other fields that can be completed in a shorter time than a traditional college degree. Additionally, trade school programs often have a high job placement rate, making them a great option for quickly entering the workforce.
Bachelors, masters, professional, and doctoral degree programs are also part of the puzzle. Many high-demand, good-paying jobs can be acquired after getting one of these degrees. Statistically, those with a formal education tend to have higher earnings and lower unemployment rates over time when compared to their peers.
Weighing the Pros and Cons of Continuing Education
High School Diploma:
If you need to support yourself or your family financially, earning money right away is a temptation that’s hard to ignore. Starting a career early can also give a head start on building work experience and professional networking. Some employers like Quicktrip, Costco, and Walmart offer a path to management with time. Many entry-level positions also have on-the-job training that can allow you to acquire skills and knowledge past the high school level.
The career jumpstart does have opportunity costs like limited job options, lower earning potential, and lack of job security. Without additional training, education, licensing, or apprenticeship, often those with only a high school diploma find their career and wages stagnating and they feel stuck.
Jobs with diploma only
Sales, food service, landscaping, customer service, data entry, warehouse worker, receptionist
Apprenticeships offer hands-on training that allows you to learn and apply practical skills directly in a real-world work setting and earn while you learn. You’ll gain work experience while learning on the job, which can help you build your resume. You’ll meet and work with professionals in your field, building your professional network. If you perform well during your apprenticeship, you may be offered a full-time job with the company upon completion of the program.
Apprenticeships often pay less than full-time jobs in the same industry, especially in the beginning stages of the program. You’ll be expected to work full-time while completing the program requirements, a substantial time commitment that may limit flexibility to pursue other interests or commitments. Depending on the field, a limited number of apprenticeship opportunities may be available in your area or with companies you’re interested in working for.
Jobs from apprenticeship
Millwright, electrician, mechanic, plumber, HVAC technician, insurance agent, welder, heavy equipment operator, ironworker, utility worker
Professional Certification/Associates Degree:
Increased earning potential and career advancement that comes from demonstrating competency in a field. Certifications can make a career switch possible in as little as 16 weeks, while associate degrees are less costly and time-consuming than a four-year degree.
Certifications and associate degrees do have costs; both are time-consuming and require some upfront money. Community college tuition varies but generally hovers around $100-$200 per credit hour, while some certificates are quite costly. Many certifications require recertification after some time. Certifications can also be highly specialized, limiting the types of jobs made available, while some types of associate degrees are too broad to qualify applicants for specific jobs.
Jobs from professional certification/associates degree
Nurse, physical therapist, software developer, welder, truck driver, wind turbine technician, construction worker, paralegal, dental hygienist.