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More choices for Generation Z, many skipping college for careers

To see how this national movement is affecting the Pine Belt, WDAM spoke with Lamar County Superintendent Tess Smith, whose school district ranks among the very best in Mississippi.
Updated: Jan. 17, 2019 at 10:32 PM CST
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PURVIS, MS (WDAM) - For years it was conventional wisdom. If you did well in high school, you went on to college. For many young people—and their parents—that was unquestionable. You went to college for four years. But today, with college loan debt piling up past $1.5 trillion, and many trade jobs offering high pay, things are different. Today’s economy means more choices for Generation Z.

WDAM’s sister station in Charlotte met a student who was halfway through a four-year degree at a university in North Carolina, when he quit and went to trade school.

"This opportunity presented itself after I realized I'm paying a lot of money every year to go to school, and I'm not getting anything out of it, at least I don't feel like,” said Marshall Shank. "It's just been a huge learning tool for me, and I've seen immediate results, and I can apply myself easier than just regular college classes."

Our station in Baton Rouge covered an expo where 1,100 students from 60 high schools across Louisiana were learning about jobs in the construction industry. Builders can’t find enough workers.

“Everybody wants to be a doctor or a lawyer. We need people that want to be welders, pipe fitters, equipment operators,” said Trey Crawford of Grady Crawford Construction. “You can look in the newspaper and everybody is looking for qualified help."

We’ve seen this story playing out across the country.

High-Paying Trade Jobs Sit Empty, While High School Grads Line Up For University

The Hot New Generation-Z Trend Is Skipping College

To see how this national movement is affecting the Pine Belt, WDAM spoke with Lamar County Superintendent Tess Smith, whose school district ranks among the very best in Mississippi.

“I believe more students are thinking about it,” she said. “They’re beginning to have conversations about their options. I think they’re more savvy than even I was at that age, and I think the internet has a lot to do with that. I think they’re beginning to do research.

Right now, Lamar County offers nine programs in career and technical education, or CTE. You’ll find six of those at the tech center in Purvis, where high school students explore fields like engineering, teaching, and metal fabrication.

“Thankfully we have programs, like this room we’re sitting in now,“ Smith says, “where if they are thinking about going into nursing, or the automotive field, or metal trades, they can come down here, spend two years of high school and get a feel, is this what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Students venture outside the classroom, into the workplace. They talk to people now employed in their field of interest. They see firsthand what the job is, and what they can earn. And Smith says Lamar County is constantly reviewing its CTE programs to see what else it needs to offer.

“We’re going to see about bringing in a drone program if we’re approved by the state,” she says, “and I think that is an area of huge growth, not only in the state but nationally. So, I hope we will be able to bring that program in and get some kids interested in that.

“Any program like that, that we can begin to bring in. We’re going to bring in a law-related education course, hopefully, for those students who think they’re going to go into law enforcement or even if they want to be an attorney. Again, give them an idea, is this what I want to do for the rest of my life?”

One national report says the average college graduate in the United States leaves campus toting a debt load of nearly $40,000, while another study finds 30 million jobs paying an average of $55,000 a year that do not require a bachelor's degree. Many high school students are taking notice, school districts are working to give them options, and the state is widening its educational focus.

“There’s always been the CTE side of things, the career and technical side, and programs like this,” Smith said. “But now with the state of Mississippi going to ‘college- and career-ready,’ it’s not just where years past it was college college college, now it’s college or career, what is best for that student, what path should we have you on.”

Last year Lamar County had 193 graduates from CTE programs. Three joined the military, nine went to work, 181 continued their education, mostly in community college.

And CTE students in Lamar County can earn half- or full-tuition scholarships to Pearl River Community College.

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