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US Economists Say University Not Only Way to Success

The apprentice program run by the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union in the state of Maryland, Travis Strawderman and other students make money while they learn

There's a widespread perception in the United States that a university degree is the key to success. But a growing number of educators now say there other possibilities, especially for students might not succeed at the university level.

This is not a traditional classroom. At the apprentice program run by the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union in the state of Maryland, Travis Strawderman and other students make money while they learn. "It's completely changed my life around," he said. "I've been able to pay off all my debts. I can say I'm actually responsible enough to have my own family."

Strawderman's five-year program teaches him technical skills free of charge. He says he considered university, but it didn't interest him.

Economics Professor Robert Lerman says Strawderman is not alone. "A lot of people are bored in high school," Lerman stated. "They leave high school because they are bored. They want to do something besides sit in a classroom."

Lerman says the education system in the United States is too focused on pushing students to attend university. "What we're doing now is we're saying unless you learn in this way you don't really have the option for a rewarding career," he said.

But Chad Aldeman, an analyst for the think tank Education Sector, says studies show the longer students stay in school the better chance they have at having a high paying and stable career. "If you only are a high school graduate your wages are going to drop over your lifetime -- as opposed to a college degree," he said. The college degree "is really an insurance policy against unemployment and against low wages."

But not everyone who goes to university is successful. A 2007 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development finds only 54 percent of the people who enter university in the U.S. get a degree. That's one of the lowest among developed countries, where the average is 71 percent.

"A large number of young people would learn much better through a combination of work place learning and academic learning but tied to particular objectives," Lerman said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that of the 30 occupations projected to have the largest growth, more than half of them require on the job training and not a university degree.

Al Clinedinst is the training director of Travis Strawderman's apprentice program. "It's extremely competitive. We take the best out of the group that apply that year. Sometimes there are as many as 1,700 people that apply for 100 spots," he said.

When students are accepted into the apprenticeship program, the school helps them to find full time jobs with contractors. They work during the day and attend classes at night, two to three times a week.

"They earn a wage while they are out there learning and in many cases the wages are higher than most entry level jobs in the market place," Lakin explained.

Steven Lakin, vice president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of Maryland, says companies within his organization employ the students and graduates of this apprenticeship program. When the students graduate they can earn $36 an hour.

"The good thing with trade is more than likely you're always going to have a job and as soon as you get out of the apprenticeship they're going to put you to work," Strawderman said.

For Strawderman, who recently married, this apprenticeship gives him a sense of achievement, knowing that he can provide for his family and enjoy his job.