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Obama Urges Preparation for Manufacturing Careers

When we were planning the content of this year's "Diplomas Count" report, we didn't coordinate with President Barack Obama. Honest, we didn't. But his comments today sure dovetail with the stuff we're writing about in that report, released yesterday.

See my blog post earlier today for a link to the report and a quick summary of what's in it. But the short version is that we explore education options for high school graduates that do not include a four-year degree.

Earlier today, the president announced a flock of new initiatives aimed at making more young people ready for jobs in manufacturing. In remarks at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, the president called for 500,000 community college students to earn industry-recognized certificates in the next few years. Playing a pivotal role in that push will be a skills-certification system created by the National Association of Manufacturers, its nonprofit Manufacturing Institute, and ACT Inc.

A text of the president's remarks is here, a video version from C-SPAN is here, and a White House press release describing all the facets of the initiative is here.

A part of the push here is to build a more widely shared definition of what constitutes career readiness in specific fields. The president noted that even as lots of folks look for jobs, many companies are looking for employees and are frustrated by a mismatch between the skills aspiring workers offer and the skills the company needs. A widely accepted set of definitions would mean that employers and aspiring employees are on the same page, using shared ideas of what it means to be work-ready in specific fields.

The focus on certificates lands amid rising debate about whether expensive, often debt-laden four-year degrees are worth getting. (See two recent New York Times stories with differing points of view that illustrate the facets of this debate; one questions the value of a college degree, and the other reports that its value is on the rise.)

A recent study that we told you about delved into the differences in lifetime earnings that various college majors carry, intriguing information for students as young as high school to consider when contemplating their future pathways.

Some stories on Obama's announcement today cast it as an attempt to bolster his standing on the sensitive jobs issue just as America has reason to feel more nervous about the economic recovery. But whatever its political value to the president, the issue of education pathways and where they lead is hotter than ever in policy circles. That's why we tackled the sub-baccalaureate portion of that question in this year's "Diplomas Count." Because so many students never complete a university education, chanting "college for all"—at least when we mean a bachelor's degree—risks shortchanging an awful lot of students. And that means we have to look long and hard at a multitude of options to serve that wide array of students.

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