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November 03, 2017

Zachary Feeley, 24, works as an apprentice at Interstate Electrical Services in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

The debate about the value of a college degree often centers around jobs, student loan debt, and whether it’s all worth it. A new study from Georgetown University finds that there are 30 million well-paying jobs in the US that require less than a four-year degree.

Inside Interstate Electrical Service’s massive factory floor in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, 30 apprentices are coiling wire and bending pipe.

The company provides electrical services to commercial customers across New England.

Zachary Feeley has just finished his eight-hour shift. After high school, the 24-year-old from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, dropped out of community college and joined the Marines.

“After my military term, I came home and was in need for a job, so I started working at Papa Gino’s. That was a dead end. Then I worked an auto parts place, which, I didn’t see any progression,” he said. “I wasn’t happy sitting behind a desk or a computer.”

In 2014 Feeley applied for Interstate Electrical’s four-year apprenticeship program. Today, he’s learning how to be a journeyman electrician through night classes and on-the-job training during the day.

“I never leave work without learning something or having some self-gratification, so it was definitely worth it,” he said.

Luiza Mills, head of human resources at Interstate Electrical, said electricians can leave these apprenticeships debt-free. There is no tuition, and Interstate provides students with a salary and benefits.

“The first year out they can start earning well over $50,000 depending on where they are in the state,” Mills said, adding that within five years electricians' salary can increase to over $100,000.

Over the past 30 years, the number of blue-collar trade jobs in the US has declined dramatically, but they haven't disappeared.

A new report by Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce finds that while there is a growing number of jobs that require at least some education beyond high school, workers without a bachelor’s degree still make up 64 percent of the country’s workforce.

“It was surprising to me that this sector was as robust as it is,” said Tony Carnevale, the report’s lead researcher. Carnevale says a four-year degree is still the gold standard, but families should rethink the idea that our education system takes students from high school to Harvard.

“For almost half of the kids who graduate from high school in America, they never do get a degree. So there is this other half of Americans who aren't served by that vision.”

Part of the problem, Carnevale says, is that high schools are evaluated on how many of their graduates attend four-year colleges.

“We’re not connecting young people to the real world of labor markets until they get to be lost and on their own after having tried to go to college and, having failed, scramble to find a job,” he said.

The good news, Carnevale added, is that there's a growing share of jobs in health care, technology, advanced manufacturing, and the trades that don't require a four-year degree. The Georgetown report finds these jobs pay an average of $55,000 a year.

Back on the shop floor in Tewksbury, Zachary Feeley is tired as he heads to his night class.

“It’s definitely exhausting, especially after the eight-hour workday and then you have to go to school,” he said. “But you go to school and then you learn something, and then all of a sudden you go to work the next day and you’re utilizing it. That’s the difference.” 

Looking back, Zachary says he wishes he had known about this apprenticeship in high school.

“I have friends and family that went the four-year route, and a lot of them don’t even have jobs in their degree field, which is, I think, kinda funny,” he said. “I feel like I’ll always have a paycheck on Friday. There will always be work.”

Once he gets his electrician license next spring, Feeley hopes to work his way up from journeyman to supervisor.

WGBH News intern Nelson Reed contributed to this report.

This story originally aired July 26, 2017.

Read the full Georgetown report here.

Earlier: Stigmatized In America, ‘Blue-Collar Aristocrats' Thrive In Germany

Greater Boston: WGBH's Cristina Quinn reports on a shortage of auto mechanics.

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