In response to soaring higher education costs and widespread shortages of skilled workers to fill jobs, the topic of vocational training has become increasingly popular. Media mentions of career and technical education have quadrupled since 2014, noted Brian A. Jacob, author of a Brookings Institution report, "What we know about career and technical education in high school."

The reduced training time and cost of trade school compared to university are key benefits highlighted by advocates, along with the observation that the price tag on the average university education and its associated burden of debt isn’t always justified by what graduates encounter in the job marketplace upon graduation.

Meanwhile, published lists of the average wages of different trade jobs boast about how much new hires are already earning while their university-going counterparts are still spending time and money in the classroom.

A nearly-guaranteed job upon graduation is another lure for students who embark on a trade school education in vocations plagued by severe workforce shortages. Industries that fit this category include but aren’t limited to construction, healthcare and manufacturing, as recently explored in detail by R.V. Scheide in a MultiBriefs article, "Bridging the manufacturing skills gap: A work in progress."

Beyond economic benefits, the hands-on training that characterizes trade school is an additional perk for young people with learning styles that would make the theoretic and lecture-heavy nature of much college study less desirable. It also allows students a taste of what a future career in this area of work is likely to involve from the outset, which can help them clarify whether it’s a good fit.

Why then, despite the obvious benefits, are high school graduates — especially those likely to find a career in the trades fulfilling — still opting for an expensive college education instead of trade school?

An April spot from NPR’s "All Things Considered," entitled "High-paying trade jobs sit empty while high school graduates line up for university," explores this very question.

Two key conclusions drawn in the show and voiced by experts interviewed in Scheide’s article are that parental ideals which equate success with completing a university degree heavily influence children from a young age and that the educational system blindly steers students towards college.

Beginning young to lessen bias against work in the trades

Countering parental and societal pressures may be challenging. However, concerned educators have the power to influence young people and make inroads towards removing the stigma attached to working in the trades and other jobs that don’t require a college education.

Long before career guidance starts, teachers can become more conscious of messages they give when children are young such as threats that associate certain vocations with failure.

Frustration with students who seem to be falling short of their potential may lead a teacher to say something like, "If you don’t study math you won’t get into college and you’ll end up as a janitor or construction worker." Stepping back to examine our own societal programming can help us to stop perpetuating such damaging messages.

We can help lessen the cultural bias against vocations that are often stigmatized by cultivating a genuine appreciation for all the workers who make our society function. Embellishing and building upon preschool’s popular "Community Helpers" theme, we can incorporate lessons that raise awareness of what our community needs to thrive so we may continue enjoying or even improve upon the quality of life we’re accustomed to.

Through projects, my preschool, primary and secondary students have had the opportunity to meet and interview a wide variety of professionals including bee-keepers, trout farmers, filmmakers, carpenters and potters.

Raising awareness of a wider range of vocational options

If young people are able to see their options without the foggy lens of cultural bias, they’ll be more likely to embark on a career path that will bring them both success and lasting fulfillment. Comprehensive career guidance that exposes the widest possible range of options should be provided early.

In a recent report, the auditor of Washington state, Pat McCarthy, calls for the establishment of "a model course framework required for all students in the 7th or 8th grade that teaches students about multiple career paths that include postsecondary career and technical education (CTE), apprenticeships, military and four-year professional opportunities along with the educational costs and anticipated incomes that accompany each."

An important benefit of providing guidance prior to high school is it can help prevent students from dropping out, which educational research has linked to youth not being able to visualize the connection between their high school courses and a job. Technical education programs at the high school level also dramatically increase the likelihood of high school graduation, according to a study of regional vocational and technical high schools (RVTS) in Massachusetts.

Teaching flexibility and creative alternatives

Trade school and college do not have to be mutually exclusive endeavors. I recently met a high school graduate attending a carpentry trade school with the plan of going on to study architecture. He felt that having ability to actually build something would allow him to get greater value out of his future studies.

Others who lack the budget for college can explore technical alternatives in their field of interest that require less time and monetary investments.

It’s possible and common to work at a skilled trade for some years and then move to a higher-level job in the same arena or a management position. For example, my uncle worked as a firefighter for many years before earning an engineering degree to become a fire protection engineer.

Such a step usually means earning an additional degree or certificate — frequently paid for by the employer. In this case, the trade job serves as a stepping stone that helps to fund further education.

This configuration has a clear advantage in the eyes of employers as they get someone with practical knowledge and work experience — plus an advanced degree.

Educating children to know themselves

Once aware of the different options that exist in the world of work, students can figure out their place in that world much more easily if they know who they are and what they want. In a previous article, I covered new programs designed to lead students in discovering deeper purpose in their lives in order to give them greater personal context in planning for their future.

Starting young with an education that promotes self-knowledge and autonomy encourages children to be in touch with what motivates and fulfills them. Children lacking this security are more likely to be driven to seek external validation manifested as trying to impress others, live up to expectations of parents or teachers, or to prove that they are worth something.

When young people are less tied to societal messages of what brings satisfaction, they can decide the qualities they desire in their lives and explore how to make that happen. As independent thinkers, they are able to measure their success based on what they define it to be.