College Degree vs. Company Training

By Stephen Patchin posted 03-21-2019 08:31


“There’s a skill shortage in the United States. If we don’t start training programs now we will have a shortage of technical candidates.” – Natalia Pedroza, Nestle Waters North America

29 percent of companies surveyed have STEM-related training programs targeting high school graduates*

STEM-focused higher education institutions recorded their most active recruiting season ever this past fall. With the economy humming along, companies added more than 300,000 positions to their payrolls in both December (2018) and January (2019). Hot industries continue to be construction and manufacturing, while those holding degrees in IT and the cyber world being scooped up quickly.

Companies, desperate for talent, are not waiting for this talent to flow through four-year institutions. They are creating their own training programs for students to enter right out of high school. This is an attractive option for Gen Z who are known for being frugal and looking for options to limit their educational debt. Many of these programs focus on what was historically called “trades.” With the new injection of technology, this should be renamed “tech trades.”

“We are actually starting to team up with trade skill centers to recruit high school students who have interest in technical programs. We are starting to grow our own civil technology technicians as most schools do not teach this. We are going after students who are not interested in obtaining a four-year degree.” – Debbie Schmalzel – Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr, & Huber

91 percent of companies surveyed would be interested in recruiting candidates that had been trained in another companies STEM focused program

Many companies are teaming up with community colleges or independent training organizations to help develop these technical training programs. These programs have a heavy emphasis on immediate application of the skills these students are learning. They feel many college grads are lacking this experiential learning component.

“Most of the students that come to us have no experience and very little idea how to apply the conceptual learning they received in high school and college. Businesses have been forced into training because the graduates have no application skills.” – Alan Tehan, Precision Automotive

Some companies have chosen to launch extensive internship and co-op programs instead of formal training programs. They bring college students in and provide them real-world experiential learning experiences. Most of these internships and co-ops in STEM fields are fully paid.

“We bring in interns with the mindset we will be making an offer before they graduate. We apply hands-on training that aligns with their school to be able to provide real-world experience helping their classes make more sense.” – Stephanie Ridgeway – U.S. Engineering

59 percent of companies surveyed would place a higher value on STEM talent that had completed a 4-year degree vs. company training program

Companies depending on STEM talent still value the amount of knowledge that can be obtained through a four-year degree. Recruiters are looking for the “T” structure of talent. “I”, the vertical component of the “T”, represents the depth of knowledge in particular subject matter, the candidate’s expertise. What is gaining in value is the “—", the horizontal element of the “T” which represents the breadth of knowledge. This could include leadership, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, coding, design thinking, and so much more, not just technical skills. 

“Engineers for medium tech industries with hands-on craftsman skills and background often perform at a high level. Candidates who only perform well in academic context sometimes fall short with teamwork and project skills, humility, and can-do attitude.” – Herb White, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

52 percent of companies with STEM-related training programs for high school graduates will be expanding their programs

Companies that have the financial means will continue to expand their training programs. The need for STEM talent, from engineers to coders to tech trades, is not going away. STEM talent is a valuable commodity, so much so that companies considering new operations are looking to place them near talent pipelines, whether it be strong trade schools, colleges, or universities. STEM talent is a commodity very few industries can live without, even in the approaching world of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

It should be noted that many companies, big and small, are developing or expanding their internship and co-op programs. These companies benefit from them for three main reasons:

  1. They act as a tryout for the company team. Companies can explore all the talents a student possesses that can’t be judged by a grade point average or through on interview, including such skills as leadership, critical thinking, flexibility, creativity, emotional intelligence, teamwork, and many more.
  2. It is a way for them to onboard students, using this time to teach them practical application skills needed to be successful in their organization. Once hired, they can contribute to the company’s success on day one!
  3. It is an effective recruiting tool. Many companies are making offers to students as soon as they finish their co-op or internship before they even start their senior years, taking the top talent off the market.

Bottom line, if the companies can’t get the talent they need from higher education, they will create their own programs as a means of equipping talented individuals with the exact skills sets the companies are seeking. Higher education needs to ensure it is producing the unique skills companies need or these colleges will find themselves with fewer customers for the talented graduates they are producing.

*Based on a survey of recruiters belonging to the STEM Coalition.



05-06-2019 11:26

Great read! Thank you, Stephen. Do you have suggestions for how to advise a student who is considering dropping out of college before earning their BA/BS because they are offered a full-time role and feel that they will gain more practical experience working as opposed to going to school? I'm having difficulty finding data to support the argument that a degree will increase someone's overall earning potential compared to working full-time for a start-up (which is potentially risky).