In 2014, the state legislature requested that Washington’s Education Research & Data Center (ERDC) “create a report of employment and earnings outcomes for degrees, apprenticeships and certificates earned at public schools and universities.” The agency delivered that report in 2015, along with an interactive dashboard that displays earnings data for students in different fields of study and levels of attainment.

The results will surprise anyone who still believes that a 4-year degree is the only route to career success. Using data from the high school graduating class of 2009, the report reveals the earnings for individuals in Washington State across a number of educational pathways. Data like this can be useful to students and parents planning their schooling and workforce training, as well as policymakers deciding how to distribute funding among the many postsecondary institutions.

Unemployment insurance wage records collected by the Washington State Employment Security Department are used to determine earnings. These data do not include self-employed individuals, federal employees or those employed exclusively outside Washington state. The dataset includes the earnings of students who received degrees or certificates from public universities and colleges (including community and technical colleges), or those who completed apprenticeship programs in Washington and are employed in the state.

The findings reinforce other recent research publications that have found multiple pathways to highly compensated employment that don’t require 4-years or more of postsecondary training.

One noteworthy trait of this dataset is that it represents first-year earnings only. Perhaps over time a longitudinal dataset can be developed which tracks individuals for many years in regards to earnings, employment status, and

Apprenticeships Rule!

Upon evaluating the data, one major takeaway is the huge ROI for apprenticeships. Among seven types of postsecondary credentials featured in the study, apprenticeships finished just behind those in the highest-paid category of doctoral degrees. The median individual earned $69,200 in the first year after completing their apprenticeship. That’s more than those who received Bachelor’s, Master’s, and nonprofessional Doctoral degrees!

Apprenticeships follow an “earn while you learn” model, combining classroom studies with extensive, paid, on-the-job training under supervision of a journey-level craftsperson or trade professional. This “get paid to learn” model makes apprenticeships a great way to avoid debt while jumpstarting a highly compensated career.

Figure 2 below shows median first-year earnings for apprentice completers in five specific fields. The Washington State median earning for all completers was $69,200. Law enforcement, firefighting and related protective services apprenticeships had the highest median first-year earnings ($86,900).