Overcoming the Body Gap by keeping the Wisconsin economy growing with fewer people remains the biggest challenge we will face in the coming decade. In order to make that happen, we need to change the way we prepare our young people and how we discuss career options.

I grew up in Madison, living in a “College Only” environment. The only choice my parents gave me was to join the band or play on the football team at UW-Madison – not whether or not I would go to college. (I did manage to show my rebellious streak by doing neither! Sure, I’m a Badger, but no band or football for me, Mom and Dad!) The same attitude permeated my high school: Either you went on to a four-year college or faced the life of a loser. We all believed that the college degree would become the new high school diploma and society would require it as a basic screening credential.

Then, something strange happened. The numbers didn’t change! The requirement mix remained the same over four decades: A third of all jobs still require a four-year degree or more, a third require a high school diploma or less, and the final third – the mid-level jobs – falls in between! There were a couple evolutions within those categories. First, mid-level jobs require more technical abilities than when I was in high school. Also, a “strong back and a good alarm clock” no longer guarantees a family-supporting career.

One other major change is that there are more paths to success in this new economy than just earning a traditional college degree. I was all-in on that “sheepskin” being the sole path to success, but not anymore. The National MEP Network provides me a ringside seat to the accelerating change that is transforming our economy and creating multiple paths to success. No longer does that four-year degree insure long-term success. The world changes much too fast! Today’s high school graduates need a different approach to accomplish two critical goals. First, graduates must identify and prepare for their first job – their first career platform. Of course, the next step is to identify and prepare for their second platform. Second, individuals must learn how to learn because the hot skills will constantly change, making it necessary for all of us to become lifelong learners in order to thrive. Mastering this new approach opens great career pathways that were never available to my generation!

Our future depends on our ability to completely engage our kids and keep all their options open. The traditional college path may open doors, but it also closes options as students make decisions about their academic future. That path is also expensive and mistakes cost real money as students retrace their steps and align with a new career path. In contrast, manufacturing keeps most options open and pays well. The industry is an exciting way to discover careers and stay engaged at the same time.

These new experiences deliver a clear message: The best and brightest may not need college. (The heresy!!) Technical college and an entry-level manufacturing job can be a terrific way to launch a career. The combination provides great experience, good money, and future options stay open! Four-year college remains one of those open options…often with an employer’s support.

Thank goodness the conversation is moving away from “everyone needs a four-year degree.” I came back to Wisconsin six years ago, believing college was the best way to thrive. Most people agreed with me. Only a few pioneers were sharing technical college and manufacturing as a different path to success. Gradually, more voices joined the refrain and people began to say that manufacturing is a great career path…for your kids. We even heard the Governor promote this path and use his sons as examples. That was four years ago and few stepped up with their own children. Of course, they would go on to a four-year college.

The discussions stayed the same over those four years. Manufacturing and technical college was a good option…for your sons and daughters!

The conversation FINALLY changed last week during a lunch with Joe (his real name) and another friend. We were discussing careers, how they would evolve, and the best ways to prepare for those future careers. Of course, our talk took the usual path – my friend’s children were going to a traditional college, but…

That’s when Joe spoke up. His story started the same way. He encouraged his kids to consider a wide range of options and his first son became a lawyer. Then the plot changed.

Joe’s other two sons took different paths. Both rejected traditional four-year college and pursued their particular interests. Phillip took advanced placement classes in high school and graduated with his diploma plus an Associate Degree in mechanics from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC). After graduation, he earned a second degree in body work and now holds a terrific job plying his trade with the Post Office.

Michael also took his own road – a dual path. He attended NWTC and earned his degree in computer technology. Then, he joined the Army Reserves and took almost every computer class they offered and broadened his capabilities. Michael will leave the reserves next year, with a great portfolio and ready for his next challenge.

FINALLY one of my friends was walking the talk. It was his two sons who created terrific careers without four-year degrees or crushing student debt. Both sons hold family-supporting jobs and their options for the future are wide open! Oh yeah…the lawyer is doing well, too.

Maybe we are finally reaching full-acceptance of alternative paths to success!

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