Students steer clear of student debt and flock to trade schools and high-demand technical careers

With Growing Student Loan Debt, Some Look for Alternative Learning Models to Land Jobs.
Students Train in Nondestructive Examination at CPCC
Students Train in Nondestructive Examination at CPCC
Updated: Oct. 24, 2018 at 7:08 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The average college student graduates with about $40,000 dollars in debt, and that four-year degree doesn’t always lead to a job right away. That’s why more and more students are looking at technical trade programs, often graduating with less student debt and more job offers than their peers.

That was Marshall Shank’s motivation when he started training for a career in Non-Destructive Examination, or NDE, at Central Piedmont Community College. The NDE program is just one of the many technical trade curriculum offered at CPCC. NDE students are trained in multiple pipe inspection methods, and they’re in very high demand at power plants, military bases, oil refineries and more.

NDE may sound hyper-specific, but Shank says he kind of stumbled into it when looking into trade programs. He was actually more than halfway through a four-year degree at UNCC, when he decided he didn’t want to spend the money or the time waiting to join the work force.

“This opportunity presented itself after I realized I’m paying a lot of money every year to go to school, and I’m not getting anything out of it, at least I don’t feel like.” Shank said during class on Wednesday. “It’s just been a huge learning tool for me, and I’ve seen immediate results, and I can apply myself easier than just regular college classes.”

However, it wasn’t just the cost of college or the class load that steered Shank to trade school. He, like many other students, was drawn to a combination of the current high-demand for skilled workers and the high salary potential available in many technical careers.

Shank’s program instructor at CPCC, Rand Ernst says that’s a common trend with many of his students, who come to him looking for a way to work with their hands and learn a versatile skill in a shorter amount of time.

“With trades, things where you’re working with your hands, there’s a severe shortage of people right now. There’s a very severe shortage in our and in other trade type jobs. So, the pay is going up, the job availability is going up,” said Ernst.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there has been a consistent climb in technical trade openings. As of this summer, BLS data showed there were about 300,000 openings in the U.S. construction industry, which includes electricians, plumbers and HVAC professionals. While the manufacturing sector recorded close to 500,000 openings across the country.

Bureau of Labor Statistics graphs show the number of job openings in both manufacturing and...
Bureau of Labor Statistics graphs show the number of job openings in both manufacturing and construction. Job totals shown in graphs are from summer 2018, and reflect total openings throughout the country.(Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Ernst says he sees that demand play out daily, with the number of companies that come to court his students from all over the country.

“We have people coming to us asking for graduates. We can’t put enough graduates out to fill the jobs right now. We have well-over a 90% placement rate, probably closer to 95,” said Ernst.

With that demand comes dollars. Ernst says his entry-level NDE graduates, even with no experience, start at $17-$22 an hour, and those wages only climb after they land their first job. Other technical trades start at even higher wages.

Shank says many people don’t know you can make a solid salary working a ‘blue-collar’ job. He says he was always told he had to attend a major university and get a four-year degree to have a satisfying and high-paying career, and while the university route has been a successful strategy for many of his friends, Shank says that hasn’t been true for him. He says he’s surprised how many people underestimate trade schools and those that choose them.

“I think a lot of times the misconception is if you go to trade school, is because you’re either not intelligent or you don’t have the ability to go and earn a higher wage, that’s just not true at all,” said Shank.

Shank and his classmates will soon have the jobs, salaries, and pick of employers to prove just that, and likely without any major student debt.

For more information on CPCC’s trade school programs, visit this link:

You can find a list of additional North Carolina trade schools here:

For more information specifically on CPCC’s Non-Destructive Examination program mentioned in this article. Instructor Rand Ernst will be holding an informational meeting at 6 p.m. on Thursday, October 25th at CPCC’s Harper Campus. Mr. Ernst can also be reached by email at

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