Debt-Free Education is Still Possible

How do you fill 9,000 open construction jobs in the state of Michigan in one year? Or 500,000 skilled professional trade jobs by 2024? According to the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development, those staggering numbers are reality. Why? The Great Recession exodus, birth rate decline, skilled professional tradespeople retiring, misperceptions about trades, lack of awareness, and the emphasis on a four-year college education as a way to guarantee job placement have created a shortage of skilled professionals.

Professional trades have long faced a stigma of being dirty, repetitive jobs, only performing manual labor. However, advancements in technology create a very different outlook.

For example, 19 year-old Levi Cederquist will graduate this spring from Northwestern Michigan College’s welding certification program with a two-year associate’s degree. He is already working at a surgical instrument company – TIG welding – and soldering medical equipment.

Not the greasy-handed, repetitive image you had in mind, is it?

But sometimes jobs are “dirty,” you say. Maybe. But who didn’t like playing in the sandbox when they were kids? Getting dirty was the fun part. And now you can get paid for it! The average skilled trades profession wage is about $51,000 a year and quickly growing. Less debt, shorter school, paid training … the benefits add up.

Opportunities abound in healthcare, information technology, advanced manufacturing, construction, energy, and automotive sectors. Add to that the average debt for a traditional college student, graduate or not, is in the $30,000 range – with no guarantee of employment.

How do we fix the growing need for professional trades talent? Fortunately, the pendulum of support seems to be swinging back in a positive direction. National, state, regional and local initiatives are working together to create awareness and opportunity, focusing on a return on investment for students, increased trades training with links to future careers, and education on the many options available to students.
But what about the money, you say? Yes, there is funding behind it as well.

National/state initiatives

Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s New Skills for New Jobs Act (S.2442) builds on a successful effort already underway at the state level, like the Michigan New Jobs Training Program. Right now, an employer chooses who they want to hire and then partners with a community college to provide the necessary training. The college takes on the upfront cost of the training and then captures the state income tax withholding for the new employee until the cost is fully recouped. Stabenow’s act would provide a federal match to increase the number of workers and businesses that can participate in the program.

To date, 23 Grand Traverse area businesses have received grants totaling more than $430,000 from the Michigan Skilled Trades Training Fund (STTF) for the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Stabenow’s initiatives also support other job programs:

  • Michigan has the third-worst student-to-counselor ratio in the country at 729 to 1. The recommended average is 250 to 1. Sen. Stabenow’s bipartisan Careers Act (S. 2443) would give additional resources. 
  • The federal Apprenticeship and Jobs Training Act (S.1352) would provide businesses with a tax cut up to $5,000 for each new employee enrolled in a federal or state-registered apprenticeship program. 


State initiatives continue to increase awareness to guidance counselors, parents, and students:

  • In fall 2017, Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation (HB 4181) to ensure that every student in Michigan is connected with counselors with more professional development exposure to the skilled trades.
  • The state will continue with grant funding to increase Career Technical Education (CTE) training. Partnerships are forming between local colleges and trade organizations to bring skilled trades training to regional areas.
  • The Going PRO campaign continues to highlight opportunities in the skilled professional trade fields while seeking to change dated perceptions.


And the trend is starting to have an impact. CTE programs in Michigan added nearly 5,000 students since 2015, 3,144 students in 2017 alone, marking the start of an upward trend in CTE enrollment. The total number of students in CTE courses is at 109,005 students for 2017.

Cederquist exemplifies this trend. Just prior to his junior year of high school, he attended an informational night at the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District’s Career Technical Center. He learned about dual enrollment – taking college courses in addition to high school classes – and decided it was a good option.

“I signed up for classes the next morning,” said Cederquist. “Two days later I was in my first college class. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted, but knew I liked the courses and the program was paid for. It was a no-brainer.”

His junior and senior years, Cederquist was simultaneously enrolled in high school, attending CTE classes and earning college credits.

Cederquist, who also worked throughout high school and college, says he will graduate debt-free.
“I have so many friends from high school that went to college and spent $35,000 and decided they didn’t want to do it anymore. And they still have the bill for $35,000,” he said. “It’s nice there isn’t going to be any weight on my shoulders from my degree and education.”

Tonya Wildfong is the communications director for Team Elmer’s. A University of Michigan graduate and track and field Big Ten championship teammate, she currently serves on the Impact 100 Traverse City and Chemical Bank Community boards. She wrote the children’s book “Bee in the Barn” and still likes to play in the sandbox with her remarkable husband and two entertaining children. Contact