In today’s evolving landscape of education and career advancement, the decision to pursue a four-year college degree or opt for trade school education has grown increasingly complex. Each path offers distinct advantages, catering to diverse career aspirations and personal preferences.
As chief human resources officer for leading investment management corporation Colliers’ Greater Philadelphia Tri-State region, Mary Chan is a critical gateway for candidates seeking employment at the multi-billion-dollar corporation.
In this environment, she firmly believes that university degrees are often viewed as the qualifier to a multitude of advanced career opportunities.
“Unlike trade schools, college education imparts a comprehensive and well-rounded knowledge base that spans a wide array of subjects, making graduates versatile and well-suited for professions requiring in-depth expertise,” she said.
In general, she believes college education nurtures critical thinking, research skills, and effective communication, which are prized assets in various industries, often serving as a prerequisite for careers such as business management, finance, human resources, law, medicine, engineering, and scientific research.
Says Chan, “This makes it an attractive choice to me for individuals looking to maximize their income potential.”
Tracy Timby, Bucks County Community College interim associate V.P. for Strategic Partnerships, recognizes but challenges what she considers to be a lingering bias.
“The stigma between community colleges and universities is a real thing,” she said. “I don’t believe it’s warranted or understand why it persists. However, we do find as people become more exposed to the breadth and depth of the program options that Bucks has to offer, that this notion is going away a bit. But as a whole, community colleges do suffer from the perception that we’re somehow less than.”
BCCC’s Shawn Wild, Dean of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM), stressed that at their inception, community colleges did not compete with universities at all.
“When community colleges were first developed, most of them were built to service a workforce need from GIs returning from the Korean War or the Vietnam War,” Wild said. “It was a way to get those folks to take advantage of the GI Bill and transition into a good-paying job as a civilian.”
During these formative years, there was no stigma associated with attending community-based colleges.
So when did that perception begin to change?
“Once community colleges gained the ability to offer an inexpensive, quality alternative to the first two years of college, both in workforce development as well as academic preparation for a four-year degree, a shift began, away from a kind of pride in working in different service industries towards this real push towards degree-based academia,” Wild suggests.
For non-bachelor positions, Collier’s Chan voices a distinction between the types of corporate positions her company will consider.
“Trade schools are distinctive for their focused, hands-on training, preparing graduates for employment in a shorter time frame,” says Chan. “Typically more cost-effective and shorter than traditional college degrees, they offer a streamlined path into the workforce with reduced debt. In our industry, within our asset management and property management division, there exists a particular demand for specialized skills like electricians and plumbers, which trade school graduates can readily fill.”
Within Collier’s corporate division however, they continue to place a high value on college degrees, even for entry-level positions.
“College education equips graduates with a strong educational foundation that includes critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills essential for leadership roles,” Chan said. “Furthermore, entry-level college graduates often leverage their education to pursue advanced degrees, acquiring essential soft skills like communication, analytical thinking, and adaptability, vital for leadership positions. For these reasons, corporate executives like me tend to favor college graduates in hiring decisions.”
That said, Chan also shared an intriguing exception that broke the rule of degree requirements at her company.
Back in 1998, Collier did promote an individual who possessed specialized trade skills when hired but lacked a college degree. Initially, he was turned down for an entry-level position in the brokerage division due to the perception that he lacked the qualifications for success within the brokerage arena.
“However, with unwavering dedication and hard work, this trade-skilled employee began a proactive two-year journey of self-improvement, after which executives noticed a transformation in his demeanor and communication skills.
“Without a college degree, the employee requested a meeting with senior executives, delivering a compelling presentation on why he deserved a chance. Today, he stands as one of the partners of the firm, still without a college degree, but clearly highly successful.”
BCCC’s Timby sees the developmental preparation this employee put himself through as exactly the type of training-during-employment that BCCC provides to a multitude of students wishing to upgrade their career trajectory.
Chan and Timby can agree that in the corporate world, there may still be a bias toward college graduates due to certain lingering generalizations.
However, the reality is that career success ultimately hinges on an individual’s unique blend of education, experience, and personal attributes.
Reflects Chan, “The true key to a thriving workforce lies in recognizing and valuing the strengths and capabilities that each individual brings to the table, regardless of their educational background, as exemplified by one of the newest partners in my firm.”
“Trading Up,” the Herald’s three-week series on the popularity of vocational and technical training in Bucks County, was sponsored by a Foundation Fellows Grant from the PA NewsMedia Association.