When Erik Ferrer, now 23, started criminal justice classes at Bergen Community College in Paramus, something just felt off. “It didn’t feel right when I was there,” he recalls. “I realized it was such a waste of time because I could feel it wasn’t for me.”

After taking a hiatus from school and working for two years, he came across a Lincoln Technical Institute ad for HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) certification. Once he met with a recruiter at the Mahwah location, he knew it was a good fit. Eleven months later, Ferrer earned his certification and went straight into the workforce.

The idea that college is the best path to a good job and a secure future has long been pushed by educators, parents and lawmakers. But what if your teen doesn’t want to continue her education at a two- or four-year college? Would you know how to support her if she wanted to be a beautician? A mechanic? A chef? A soldier? Studying up on the options for your non-college bound kid is the best way to help her succeed. “[Parents] heard for so long ‘You have to go to college if you’re going to get anything in life,’ but a four-year college degree is an awfully expensive career exploration activity,” says Marie Barry, assistant division director of the Office of Career Readiness at the New Jersey Department of Education.


Many still don’t know what they want to do after graduation, and leave college with the weight of loans. Students left NJ institutions with an average $30,536 in debt in 2015, making the Garden State the ninth-highest in the country for student loan debt, according to a report by LendEDU. It also turns out only 62 percent of college grads work in a career that requires a degree, and just 27.3 percent work in a field they studied in college, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census.


On the other hand, students who attend vocational high schools or post-high school trade and tech institutions, on the other hand typically have a clear game plan. “A lot of these programs require hours on the job,” explains Dana Karas, director of school counseling for Franklin Township schools and president of the NJ School Counselors Association. “They [get] a practical application of what they’re learning in school.”

Vocational high school programs are hot commodities in the Garden State, with some estimated two-and-a-half applicants for every seat. If you have a middle schooler, now’s the time to start planning if you think he or she would be a good fit since the application process starts as early as eighth grade.

If you sense college may not be right for your kid, communication is key. “As a parent, you know her better than anyone else in a lot of ways, so have the open conversation with her about what her passions and strengths truly are,” says Karas.

“Whether a student goes to college or gets a credential, everyone’s going to ultimately need to have a career,” says Barry. “One thing we know is a high school diploma in and of itself isn’t going to be the key to success for any student. Unlike 20 years ago, today's data says 65 percent of all occupations need some kind of post-secondary certificate or degree.”

Vocational high school can be either full- or part-time, and it's free. In NJ, it's paid for by respective counties, the state and the sending school district. Full-day vocational programs combine traditional classes with a student’s chosen vocational training; part-time programs allow her to spend half the day at public high school and the other half at vocational school. In most cases, students graduate with official certifications and can go straight to work. If she waits until after high school to start a vocational career, technical and trade schools cost money, though in many cases less than a two or four-year college, and typically most are local so they could save on dorm expenses, too.


If your child has military aspirations, all four branches provide discipline, physical training and tech experience all at once. “A lot of people think it’s going to be active service but that’s not always what it means,” says Karas. There are plenty of ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) programs at the college level that help pay for school, too. “The branches have plenty of STEM (science,  technology, engineering and math) related individual opportunities,” says Barry. “And [sometimes] college is paid for. They’re training while they’re earning.”

Gap and service years are also growing in popularity, though they’re not as talked about. “It shouldn’t be, ‘I’m just gonna take off and [work] at 7-Eleven,’” Karas explains. “It really needs to be something that’s going to enrich the student…that allows [him] to grow as an individual, to grow more independent and maybe find what [his] passion is.”

Barry stresses the importance of having an end goal. “'Do I want to go to college?' If that’s the question, then maybe they need to, in that gap year, visit colleges, talk to some people and have a plan about how [they’re] going to answer this question, not just ‘I’m gonna go meditate on the beach and try to figure out where my life is.’”

Experts agree on the one thing high school grads should avoid: working straight out of school. Some students may feel getting a job and saving money is the way to go, but Karas begs to differ. “Those students can get so caught  up in working those types of jobs that it’s more difficult for them if they ever decide to go backto school,” she says. “Life happens; they get married, have children and all of a sudden their aspirations get put on the back burner.”


The best way to investigate your teen's ambition is to visit vocational, tech and trade campuses. Teens shouldn’t apply before they can picture themselves at the school. Parents should ask whether there are vocational summer exploratory programs or technical education programs offered at their public high school. For instance, if your district offers an automotive class, he might not have to go to a county vocational school to get a mechanic’s certification. Talk with his teachers and guidance counselors to figure out what’s out there.

Economically, learning a trade isn't only a great way to start a career, but also a means of support if she continues her education elsewhere. “A lot of girls get their cosmetology degrees so if they do decide to [go back to school], they’re able to work in a hair salon or do nails [to] help supplement the educational cost,” says Karas.

Let your teen make his own choices, and it’ll lead to a happier adulthood and fulfilling career. Ferrer, meanwhile, currently works full-time at West Rock Mechanical in Suffern, NY, a mechanical company that specializes in heating and cooling. “Every day is a different job with a different location and problem,” he says. “It’s exciting, [and I’m] not going to get bored of my job.”

In the end, happiness often amounts to parents giving up their idea of what their teens should do or be and instead allow them to choose. Says Karas: “Sometimes you just have to let kids fly and be [on] their own.”


Looking to connect your kid with the right career? These sites will point them in the right direction.


NJ’s career development site that showcases career profiles, career aptitude surveys, labor market stats, resume tools and more.



Type "Industry-Valued Credentials" in the search box to see a list of certificates and qualifications valued in specific fields in the Garden State.



NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s take on jobs expected to grow—and pay well—in NJ. Take a look at CareerClusters to explore 79 career pathways (mostly tech and trade) your teen can consider.