AUGUSTA, Maine — When Gov. Paul LePage sent high school principals copies of an editorial cartoon poking fun at college students who look down on their peers at technical schools earlier this month, he apparently meant to reiterate his message that more emphasis should be placed on technical education.

While LePage’s focus on technical education is widely supported, his denigration of those who aspire to four-year degrees ignores reams of data that show earning a bachelor’s degree pays off. Graduate and professional degrees bring even more benefits.

Earlier this month, LePage sent high school principals copies of an editorial cartoon that featured one student bound for technical school to be a welder and another student heading for a four-year university to attain a liberal arts degree. In the cartoon, which pegs the welder’s starting salary at $50,000 per year and the liberal arts major’s starting salary at $25,000, the liberal arts student looks at the potential welder and thinks, “Loser.”

“We can do better and need to do better,” LePage wrote under the cartoon. “Let’s put our students first.”

On Wednesday, LePage reiterated his point about the virtues of technical education with a press release touting a recent Georgetown University study that found that annually in the United States, some 29 million jobs paying between $35,000 and $75,000 a year go to workers without bachelor’s degrees. The report calls career and technical education “the missing middle ground in American education and workforce preparation.”

Recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, showed clearly that higher levels of education lead to higher pay and a much better likelihood of employment. Studies by the Census Bureau and College Board have found the same thing.

“We need to do more to ensure that career and technical education is seen as a valid, mainstream path,” said LePage in a Wednesday press release. “It’s another choice for students, and must be a bigger part of Maine’s academic future.”

A more robust career and technical education system in Maine could be part of the solution to the state’s economic woes and students for whom a four-year degree is neither possible nor desired, according to LePage, who has repeatedly said infusing more people with technical skills into the workforce is crucial.

“I hear from Maine businesses all the time that they have jobs for skilled workers, but they can’t find the people to fill the jobs,” said LePage. “We’re an administration that is changing the culture in education so we better prepare them for the jobs of today. No child deserves to slip through the cracks because of a lack of options.”

Even with a slogging economy and an unemployment rate of about 7.6 percent, Maine’s manufacturing sector has long said it is starved for employees. At the end of last year, the Maine Manufacturer’s Alliance said there were hundreds of jobs available among the alliance’s 380 members.

According to data from the Maine Department of Labor, in 2008 there were approximately 1,800 jobs for welders, cutters, solderers and brazers in Maine — like the character in the editorial cartoon LePage circulated — a number which was projected to decline by more than 4 percent by 2018. Those workers could expect a starting income of about $12.52 an hour, which translates to an annual salary of around $26,000 a year. Plumbers and pipefitters — another career usually born of technical education programs — numbered about 2,700 in 2008 and had an average starting salary of $31,000. Jobs in that sector were projected to decline by about 3.4 percent by 2018.

By comparison, public relations workers — who typically would have a four-year degree in liberal arts — could expect a starting salary of about $15.90 an hour, or about $33,000 a year. That sector employed about 1,200 Mainers in 2008 and was projected to grow by more than 9 percent. Writers and authors, of which there were about 880 in Maine in 2008, was projected to increase by more than 10 percent by 2018 and earn a starting salary of about $29,000.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also refuted LePage’s claims about higher earnings for technical school graduates versus those who earn bachelor’s degrees or higher. In addition to earning more, the data show that unemployment rates decrease drastically as a person’s education reaches higher levels.

For example, a person with higher education experience up to and including an associate degree in 2011 earned nearly $40,000 a year on average in the United States, but faced an unemployment rate of between 6.8 percent and 8.7 percent. The average salary for people with bachelor’s degrees in 2011 was around $55,000, with an unemployment rate of 4.9 percent.

The Georgetown University report emphasized that career and technical training, as well as involvement in community college, leads to further studies for approximately 28 percent of students. It said that there are more post-secondary certificates awarded each year than associate and master’s degree programs combined.

Though LePage has pushed a range of changes in education at all levels in Maine, his focus on creating easier pathways to technical education has been evident in recent initiatives, including new legislation that aligned career and technical programs’ calendars with high schools.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen agreed with LePage about how efforts like that can help Maine’s economy.

“We know that these programs provide students with knowledge and training that is not only important to the students themselves, but is crucial for Maine’s economic future,” Bowen said in a press release. “We know that there are employers out there right now, prepared to hire, if only they could find the skilled workforce they need. We need to encourage students to pursue the route that works for them — career and technical education, community college, post-secondary training, and four-year college, or any combination of these and other paths.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.