Publication Date

March 1998


Using data from three longitudinal surveys of American high school students, I show that vocational courses helped non-college-bound-students to start their work life more successfully, in terms of steadier employment, higher wages and higher earnings. A comparison of the returns to academic and vocational course work for non-college bound students who graduated in 1972, 1980 and 1992 finds that the short and medium term payoffs to vocational courses rose substantially between 1972 and 1980 and remained high in 1992. Holding past and present school attendance and a host of other variables constant, academic course work in high school had much smaller labor market payoffs than vocational course work. These findings contradict the oft repeated claim that employers now seek workers with a good general education and are happy to teach the occupation specific skills necessary to do the job. Instead, they imply that the payoff to the occupation specific skills developed in schools has risen along with the payoff to generic academic skills. High school students who do not plan to attend college full-time would be well advised to start developing skills in a well paying occupation before they complete high school.


Suggested Citation
Mane, F. (1998). Trends in the payoff to academic and occupation-specific skills: The short and medium run returns to academic and vocational high school courses for non-college bound students (CAHRS Working Paper #98-07). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies.