The Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics lands as the No. 11 Two-Year Trade School and is the top school on the list for technical trades.

Courtesy of Edward Molek, PIA

The Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics lands as the No. 11 Two-Year Trade School and is the top school on the list for technical trades.

“I can think of nine magazines off the top of my head who every year will rank the top colleges. None of them ever include a trade school.”

And so began a scathing critique of college rankings and the country’s attitude toward higher education by Mike Rowe, the Dirty Jobs and Somebody’s Gotta Do It television personality and social activist. As part of an interview with ATTN:, Rowe spoke about the benefits of choosing trade schools over academia, from affordable tuition to the availability of jobs in the field.

He has a point.

The Forbes Top Colleges rankings includes over 650 four-year U.S. colleges and universities. We measure return on investment, giving colleges credit for low student debt, high graduation rates and alumni with enviable career success and salaries. This is all based on a single premise: An undergraduate education matters.

And the overall numbers bear this out.  For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the difference in median weekly earnings between workers with a bachelor’s degree ($1,156) and those with an associate’s degree ($819) was over 41% in 2016. The average salary for trade school graduates eight years into their careers was about $23,400, whereas the national average for college graduates is $33,500, according to the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, which tracks recipients of financial aid

But just as with four-year colleges, not all trade schools are equal. Because of a confluence of factors – ranging from area of study to workforce needs to close-knit learning environments – some trade schools are even better options than their bachelor’s-bequeathing counterparts.

For the first time, Forbes has put together a comprehensive ranking of two-year trade schools. Using the same “return on investment” focus as our annual Top Colleges report, this list of 30 looks at three critical data points: earnings, affordability and quality. Full methodology can be found here.

The Two-Year Advantage: Nursing & Technicians

No trade schools embody the two-year advantage better than what the Carnegie Classification of Institutions refers to as “Special Focus Two-Year: Health Professions” institutions. Put plainly, nursing schools. According to Payscale, the largest online salary database, an associate’s degree in nursing will get you paid quickly, and with a $52,500 early career median salary, the degree ranks third for pay among associates degrees -– and higher than 75% of four-year majors. The graduates of four nursing schools – including those of St Paul’s School of Nursing-Queens, our top-ranked trade school – make over $74,000 annually six years after college, more than double the national average for students from all higher education intuitions according to the College Scorecard.

This success makes sense, as the nursing trade is projected to grow even more in the coming years. Between 2014 and 2024, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that over 700,000 jobs will have been added in the occupations of registered nurses (439,300 jobs) and nursing assistants (262,000).

How about the technical trades? On its surface, the prospects for the job market look to be the victims of automation, with an estimated 282,100 jobs eliminated in production fields by 2024. Yet even with this massive shrinkage, there will still be approximately 9 million jobs in production, and for many jobs such as aircraft technicians, the lack of growth will not mean a lack of available jobs.

“We just had a career fair here in Pittsburgh maybe four, five months ago, and we had more companies sign up to attend than we have graduating students,” says Steve Sabold, the director of admissions for the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics. A two-year technical school founded in 1929 (Orville Wright’s company had a hand in its founding), PIA houses programs in aviation maintenance and aviation electronics.

There will only be 1,600 more aircraft mechanics and service technicians in 2024 than there were in 2014, but with over 30,000 job openings over that time, schools like PIA are poised to hook students up with available and fine-paying jobs. This is the story across the industry: although hundreds of thousands of jobs will be cut, there will have been over 2.2 million job openings by 2024. Welders, cutters, solderers and brazers – jobs that are as technical as they get – alone will have experienced 128,500 job openings and 14,400 jobs created according to the BLS.

Meeting the Skills Gap

Whether this plenitude of jobs is filled, however, is contingent on people getting the right training for them.

“There is no question that there’s a skills gap in the United States,” says Jay Moon, the president of the Mississippi Manufacturer’s Association, which represents 2400 workers. “We have jobs that are not being filled right now because [workers] don’t have the skillset.”

Enrollment at two-year schools – the source of job training for many of these trades – went down every year from 2010 to 2014, resulting in almost a million fewer students. Trends like these mean trouble for many industries. The National Association of Manufacturers, of which the Mississippi Manufacturer’s Association is a part, estimates that of the 3.2 million manufacturing jobs needed over the next decade, 2 million will go unfilled. Sabold shared a similar concern: according to Aircraft Maintenance Technology magazine, while 35% of aircraft technicians were over the age of 50, only 5% were below 30.

“I know when I grew up, everybody pounded into me ‘Your-year, four-year, four-year. You need to have four years.’ My guidance counselors, my parents, everybody,” Sabold says. “The entire aviation industry is encountering a problem, and that is the shortage that there, not only in the aviation industry, but in the quantity of individuals interested in getting into a skilled trade field.

Moon, who served as the chairman of the State Workforce Investment Board in Mississippi, believes that getting the right training can situate students to launch the careers that are available now. And for those who are discouraged by job market projections– he believes the growth of robotics 3D printing and autonomous cars will continue to disrupt many industries – Moon says that the skills taught in two-year community and specialized colleges won’t be obsolete.

“Because of the nature of these disruptive technologies, it’s somewhat difficult to predict exactly what are going to be the skillset demands in the future,” Moon says. ”What a lot of community colleges and training groups are doing is looking at cross-cutting skillsets. If you know that more technology is going to be utilized out in the manufacturing environment, then those people who can work with and keep the machines running, whether it’s robotics or other kinds of machines used in a manufacturing environment… can use those skills in more than one location, more than one type of business.”

There is no catch-all school setting that will guarantee everybody a job, and trade schools are not the most fitting or lucrative option for everybody. However, the nation needs nurses, mechanics and welders, and two-year specialized schools are a prime way to build a bigger, better workforce.

And so, with regards to Mr. Rowe, here is the inaugural list of FORBES’ Top 25 Two-Year Trade Schools:

Full methodology can be found here.

  1. Morrison Institute of Technology

Location: Morrison, IL

Early career salary: $43,900

Most popular area of study: Engineering Technologies and Engineering-Related Fields

Private, not-for-profit.