University Series Issue #11

The Role of Technical and Associate Degrees in Today’s Job Marketplace


Following the 2008-2009 recession, companies across the U.S. felt the impact of a housing bubble bust. Resulting business constraints forced companies to operate streamlined and efficiently. Management chose to retain senior employees while reducing burdens on the company’s expenses by laying off entry-level or less-tenured support staff. This survival practice effectively disposes the staffing level that develops a business’s future. Entry-level employees, historically, have a mentality of investing in themselves and their employer over the long term. As a result, long-term trust in an employer suffered. This is not an unusual business management mentality, so let me continue.

5+/- years later: Bankruptcies cleared, foreclosures settled, stability in the marketplace, and the U.S. economic trends continue to improve cautiously; businesses continue to mimic this trend. Management cautiously considers returning to entry-level hires instead of contractors or subcontractors providing business support services. Business operation expenses and payroll regulations became hot topics in Washington, D.C., and the recession is still visible in the rear-view mirror. Business administration continued focusing on building securities through savings accounts and efficient business operations. All the while, the retained senior staffer got five years closer to their retirement.  

The following 5 +/- years: The ‘America First’ era, where economic modeling focused on supporting and strengthening the U.S. economic power globally. At a time when businesses operating in the U.S. were seeing gains, economies importing into the U.S. were seeing constraints and greater regulations. These import regulations did impact U.S. businesses, but the movement’s strength developed confidence in the U.S. economy, and trends started to increase at greater rates than previous cautionary growth. Businesses began feeling secure, savings accounts were funded, future outlooks were grander, and staff growth entered back into business discussions. Retained senior staff from the recession are ten years closer to retirement age. 

Age gaps in the workforce continued to be a bright sign of concern in many sectors. Hiring initiatives began, entry-level staff entered back into the business, business departments diversified growth, and administrations started to wean off contractor/subcontractor support services and focused on growing productions internally. And then, COVID-19! Those new entry-level hires, department growths, and movements of business confidence were brought to their knees again in just over ten years!  

‘Help Wanted’ signs are everywhere, but no one is hiring. So what is the role of technical and two-year associate degrees in today’s job marketplace? An associate degree program focuses on developing practical skills and topic knowledge within the parameters of higher education degree requirements. Courses invest classroom time in educating topic theory, and field labs emphasize real-world practical experiences testing the student’s effectiveness in implementing skilled tasks. Graduates are often highly sought after as practical, tested, entry-level, degreed employees who are invested in the long-term growth of their careers. They often enter the workforce at a lower middle-class salary and see career advancement through their work performance achievements. Historically, associate degree graduates may reach a career ‘ceiling’ when employment tasks require business management duties. This graduate is often referred to as a highly skilled yet cost-effective, career-minded employee.

The voids in today’s workforce and the administrative practices of the last 14 years have put businesses in very difficult staffing times, often forced to close, reduce operating hours, and reduce services because of unfaithful and unwilling employees. Employers have attempted multiple campaign strategies to overcome these woes to attract and retain employees. As a result of these “desperate” times, the popularity of non-degree, workforce development, and short-term training programs has increased. Simply put, businesses do whatever it takes to get an employee hired with the basic minimum skills needed to safely support their business. This is great news for Community Colleges and Technical Trade Schools who have workforce development divisions, but not as positive for degree programs at those same institutions. Raising entry-level employee compensations and removing degree requirements for many entry-level opportunities is ‘bittersweet.’ Non-degreed hires paid at or close to the starting rates of degreed employees make recruiting for degree programs difficult. The primary question is, why do I need to invest in college when companies are hiring non-degreed employees at the same starting salary?

Oh, but it isn’t all doom and gloom for associate degree programs being stuck in the middle. What may be deemed a ‘woe’ in one view is a ‘win’ in another; we ARE in the middle! Many businesses realized, following the 2008-2009 recession, that the efficiency and effectiveness of business operations are contingent on the effectiveness and efficiency of its employees, not the employee’s degree level. Corporate standards started to waiver on bachelor’s degree minimum requirements, opening the door for associate degree graduates to earn a career in the corporate sector and reducing traditional career ‘ceilings.’ You may be thinking, this sounds mighty similar to what is occurring today, and in fact, you would be correct. Today’s circumstances have companies wavering on ‘any degree’ minimum requirements and opening the door for work-experienced and credentialed applicants to earn their career in the business sector. Ultimately, what is occurring is character, work ethic, and production performance have become primary employee evaluators, degree level secondary.   

An associate degree often costs less than one year at a bachelor’s program, provides workforce-recognized credentials, tests students on their ability to complete duty tasks effectively and efficiently, enters qualified graduates into the workforce after two years and often in internships or apprentice programs at the end of their 1st academic year, and molds a student’s character, work ethic, and their attention to quality performance. These are all important factors in recruiting and sustaining quality employees for today’s job marketplace.  

Established in 1969, the Mountain Gateway Community College forestry department has positioned itself to be the keystone for many natural resource sectors during these times.  This is our time to shine! We have placed extra efforts into recruiting, marketing, and employer relationships. We’ve increased our involvement in industry professional organizations within Virginia and the Society of American Foresters. We host short-term workforce training programs via our 3-year Appalachian Regional Commission grant, Appalachian Hardwood Training Initiative (AHTI). We know that our historically proven Forest Management Technology AAS degree pathway produces the desired graduate skills to thrive in a variety of natural resource sectors. We continue working to improve the effectiveness of our Arboriculture and Community Forestry AAS degree program. Lastly, we are in the middle, receiving greater attention from bachelor’s degree institutions for transfer students as well as collaborative partnerships. Difficult economic times will result in stronger relationships, stronger business models, and greater opportunities for individuals with high moral character, reliable work ethic, and a desire for quality production. Community and Technical Colleges are the answer for today and future workforce growth in the U.S. economy.

Scott Reigel, WVRPF #580.  MGCC Forestry Department Head and course instructor.
Mountain Gateway Community College, Clifton Forge, VA

Reviewed by Jeff Jenkins | FRA Appalachian Region Consultant | [email protected]

Further Reading
FRA’s University Series
Issue.10-The Department of Forestry at Mississippi State University
Issue.9- University of Tennessee School of Natural Resources: An Overview
Issue.8-An Overview: Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation
Issue.7- The University of Kentucky: Department of Forestry and Natural Resources
Issue. 6- The University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources
Issue. 5- The Division of Forestry & Natural Resources at West Virginia University
Issue. 4- The School of Forest Resources at the University of Maine
Issue. 3- Department of Forest, Rangeland and Fire Sciences | College of Natural Resources | University of Idaho
Issue. 2- University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UW-Stevens Point) Forestry Program
Issue. 1- The College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment at Auburn University