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Housing crisis

You’re probably thinking, “The housing crisis? Seriously? Isn’t this a website focused on careers?”

We actually believe the trades career versus traditional college decision can be informed by lessons from the painful experience that was the 2008-2009 housing crash. Give us just a few minutes, and we think you’ll understand why. You might also understand why we believe this context is critically important to understanding the behaviors and identities of the youngest generations.

In preview, we are not going to bash the traditional college route. Not in the least. For high school students knowing they will be pursuing a career requiring a bachelor’s degree in order to secure their first job, and for those excited about the prospect of at least four more years of schooling, college offers a tremendous first step. Expenses and choices need to be managed well, of course, but a walk down this path can be rewarding on so many levels.

While the comments that follow are relevant for the college-bound student, they are primarily directed to those students for whom the traditional college route is not terribly appealing. Given the intense college focus within high schools, choosing to forego the college route immediately following high school graduation may seem like running into a 30-mph headwind. It is our humble opinion that it is the traditional college path which presents the major headwind today. Many non-traditional career paths offer tremendous tailwinds, and they also help to ensure individual outcomes that are very different, on a personal level, from the housing-disaster-like scenario noted above. Let’s briefly review some history to understand why.

For thirty years leading up to 1995, the rate of home ownership in the United States was consistently 64%, plus or minus one percent. This narrow range reflected a steady balance between owners and renters. In 1995, however, the “National Homeownership Strategy” was championed by both parties of government as a means of boosting home ownership in America to an all-time high by the end of the century, on the grounds that home ownership is an essential component of the American dream.

Over the next ten years home ownership rates spiked, increasing to nearly 70% as aggressive public and private financing and down-payment initiatives, among other factors, brought more individuals into the mortgage and home ownership market. Things seemed to be going incredibly well…until they suddenly weren’t. In what became known as the Great Recession, eight million homes were foreclosed on and about $7 trillion in home equity was erased.

What caused this crash? We are not alone in thinking that the crash resulted from pushing the homeownership rate well beyond its natural balance in the name of an admittedly noble initiative. The stress and ultimate crash were exaggerated by putting considerable debt against the belief that home prices only go steadily up. Financial hurdles toward home ownership were all but eliminated. Reality ultimately intervened when it was discovered that someone with zero income should not, in fact, have a $300,000 home loan. Who knew?

Now for the segue...

“College for all” is a very similar mantra to “homeownership for all. It is a core part of the updated American dream. Programs aiming to provide college education for every student are similarly noble in their intent; it is very difficult to argue against these initiatives, and for good reason. In addition to “learning how to learn” during college, the income premium afforded college graduates relative to those without bachelor’s degrees has been cited for nearly three decades as a driving factor behind the push for more high school graduates to attend college.

However, similar to homeownership, we believe there is a natural limit to the number of high school graduates in the U.S. who: a) have a personal desire to attend a traditional four-year college because of a particular career passion; and b) will be able to derive an acceptable return on their very expensive college investment.When that natural limit is exceeded, things can get ugly, just like in the housing market. The ugliness takes longer to materialize, however, and it initially shows up in fairly subtle ways.

Let’s unpack this a bit.

While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact date–or even decade–it appears that sometime in the mid- to late-1980’s “college for all” became the standard high school fight song. In 1980, only 49% of high school graduates went directly to a four-year college. By the mid- to late-1990’s, that figure had increased to nearly 70%. (Simultaneous with this college focus was a decrease in vocational education in high schools. Between 1990 and 2009 the number of vocational credits earned in high schools dropped by roughly 15% per student.)

In support of this college push, government and private funding for college educations rose significantly. Financing was available, students were encouraged to attend college, and off they went. In the twenty years leading up to 2010, the number of full-time college students rose by over 50%. All was good, right?

Yes, except for two very big problems. First, there are simply not enough jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree to support the number of college graduates. With increasingly large numbers of students pursuing a college degree and only a modestly growing number of jobs suitable for these “knowledge workers”, especially those graduating without meaningful work experience, wages simply have not come close to keeping up with the increasing cost of obtaining the degree. Four in ten recent college graduates are in jobs that don’t require a degree.

To make things worse, while the number of college students has risen, the amount of student debt has risen even faster - markedly so. This wouldn’t be a problem if income rose at a similar rate for college graduates, but, due in part to the factor cited in the paragraph above, it hasn’t. Not even close. Since 1990, debt levels for the typical college graduate have risen from 29% of income to just under 75%. That’s a very difficult burden to carry upon graduation. (These figures don’t even include parental debt to support junior’s college pursuits or the college dropouts who carry loans but do not have the degree.)

Why did this happen? Simply put, it’s a case of too much supply chasing too little demand, driven in large measure by the promise of an income premium for a bachelor’s degree and the belief that such a degree reflects a meaningful developmental accomplishment.

Does this sound familiar? It’s the housing crisis, in reverse, where free funds resulted in too much demand chasing too little supply, supported in part by the promise of steadily rising housing prices and the belief that homeownership represents a material societal improvement relative to renting.

Let’s move now from economics to sociology, and consider the impact of this supply-demand college dynamic on the youngest generations.

What are some things we “know” about Millennials? They’re workplace slackers, never showing up on time and exhibiting a general disdain for authority. They job hop. They won’t settle down and buy a house. They value experiences more than things (avocados excepted, of course). And so on.

Is some of this criticism justified? Of course, just as plenty of other complaints are valid for portions of every generation preceding the Millennials (and every one that will follow, for that matter; we’re human).

But consider this generational “knowledge” in the context of the supply-demand dynamic noted above. Millennials going to college graduated between roughly 2002 and 2017, perfectly bracketing the steepest portion of the upswing in college applicants, graduates, and student debt. Sadly, Millennials offer the perfect generational cohort for studying the effects of the college-for-all wave crashing against the shores of reality.

This generation was told to put their heads down in high school, study hard, and pursue numerous extracurricular activities. (They were also given medals for participation by their parents and coaches, but that’s another story.) In exchange for their diligence and pursuit of their passions, they would be accepted to a good college and find a good job upon graduating. The reality has not lived up to the promise, through no real fault of the Millennial generation. It basically comes down to too much supply (college grads) chasing too little demand (jobs), exacerbated by massive amounts of debt supported by the expectation of an income stream sufficient to cover this debt.

Unlike housing, which crashed basically all at once because the financial market supporting it was so tightly interwoven, this crash is happening graduate by painful graduate as each realizes the impact of high student debt and the mismatch between their education level and/or specific capabilities relative to the available jobs.

Why might Millennials view authority from a different perspective and job hop more than prior generations, and generally avoid buying a home and settling down? Perhaps because they believed a promise from authority figures that didn’t materialize; they need to switch jobs for even modest increases in salary and/or an improved culture because each matters a great deal; and their credit scores and already-high debt levels prevent or highly discourage home ownership.

But this isn’t really about Millennials. Or economics or sociology. It’s about the Gen Z student facing a big personal decision (you!).

What do we know about Gen Z? While Gen Z is still developing as young adults, we do know that they seem to be far more pragmatic and risk-averse than the prior generation, and they also place a high value on stability. Why might this be the case? In addition to the impact of being in a front row seat watching their parents experience the Great Recession, perhaps they’ve also been impacted by the reality of the Millennial college experience and don’t want to repeat it on their own.

But what about the situation in Minnesota? It’s got to be nicer than the national dynamic, right? It’s actually a bit worse. For starters, only 22% of jobs in Minnesota require a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s just over one in five. On top of that, the average student graduates from a four-year institution in Minnesota with nearly $32,000 in debt, far above the national level. The challenges we face in our state are actually worse than what students face on a national level.

What about the motivations and interests of the student looking for guidance regarding his or her big decision? Are you certain that the job you desire requires a bachelor’s degree, and are you excited about spending at least four more years in school? If so, then go down the traditional college path with encouragement. Make sound choices about classes and summer internships to be best positioned to get a job after graduation that is both personally fulfilling and financially sufficient to cover whatever expenses are incurred along the way. A motivated and capable student pursuing a bachelor’s degree has a very good chance of earning well above the average income levels implicit in the discussion above.

If, on the other hand, you are motivated to work with your hands, to build or fix things, and to solve practical problems; to invest in yourself by learning a marketable skill while keeping future education options open; to earn money sooner rather than later while avoiding considerable debt; and to embark on a path which leverages your passion and interests, then why not aggressively pursue the trades and manufacturing career route? Choosing to bypass the traditional college step immediately upon graduation for this career path does not imply in any way a sacrifice of income, intellectual development, or fulfillment. In addition, many trades and manufacturing firms encourage (and typically pay for) their employees to pursue schooling while they are gainfully employed, so a bachelor’s degree may still be obtained if that is part of your long-term plan.

We invite you to explore the rest of the Resource Portal, as well as the Trades Hub website in general, to learn more about this route. You’ll see Day-in-the-Life videos of young workers describing their own decision process and path, and the personal fulfillment they experience through their work. You’ll see schematics which present key aspects of each job, including starting and estimated five-year salaries. You’ll learn of events which you can attend in order to speak to young workers and experience the job site as they do.

As you explore, you will discover:

  • Dunwoody College of Technology’s 11:1 job inquiries-to-graduate ratio and its 99% placement rate for its graduates within their field of study;
  • Saint Paul College’s CNC machining program which places its students into global firms such as Wilson Tool after only six months in school for an earn-and-learn experience on the road to full-time employment;
  • Design Ready Controls’ pipeline programs with Hennepin Technical College and Summit Academy to both find and then continually educate its employees;
  • State-of-the-art facilities in the metro area for training pipefitters, carpenters, and electricians, among others;
  • Apprenticeship programs for both union and non-union plumbers producing journeymen earning $80,000-$100,000 after only a four- to five-year apprenticeship; and,
  • Business leaders and entrepreneurs who built their very rewarding careers on a two-year technical degree, or less.

Our greatest hope for this Trades Hub website is that you will be able to find the appropriate path for you. One that offers a tailwind, not a stiff headwind. One that fits your passions and interests. And most important, one that offers you fulfillment and meaning (along with a reason to get out of bed each morning).


  • Home ownership rates: U.S. Census Bureau
  • Home equity losses: Federal Reserve Board
  • College enrollment: U.S. Census Bureau; National Center for Education Statistics; Pew Research Center
  • Vocational credits: National Center for Education Statistics
  • Student debt versus income: U.S. Department of Education; Federal Reserve Bank of New York
  • Jobs and degrees: New York Federal Reserve
  • Minnesota jobs and degrees: Center of the American Experiment
  • Minnesota student debt: Institute for College Access and Success
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