The recent recession forced many people out of jobs and back to the classroom to learn new skills. As a result, we now have an impending student loan debt crisisCurrent reports show that U.S. student loan debt is surging above one trillion dollars, surpassing credit card and auto loan debt. Additionally, the majority (80 percent) of student loans are government-guaranteed, with 30 percent of these government-backed loans past due 30 days or more. That means the taxpayers are on the hook should the loans default.

But the real problem is not the student loan debt itself. Rather, the real problem is that even with their shiny new degrees, graduates (both young and old) are not finding jobs. What’s the solution?

First, we have to retrain the high school and college counselors who give students advice about which major and career to pursue. Students aren’t getting jobs when they graduate; yet, there is a great need in the U.S. right now in the areas of science, math, and engineering, as well as in areas that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, such as fiber installers, electricians, and mechanics.

Too many counselors aren’t helping students see the path to employment based on the degree they’re picking. Instead they tell students to “follow your interests and passion” and pick a major based on that. How about giving students a three column list that shows the path to employment based on various majors. The list can show the jobs you can get with a two-year technical degree, such as machinist and electrician; jobs you can get with a bachelor’s degree only, like teacher, accountant, or engineer; and the jobs you need a masters degree or higher to get work, such as psychologist or sociologist. If more students knew that their chosen major requires an advanced degree to find employment, chances are high that they’d choose a different major.

Second, the U.S. can’t maintain its competitiveness without people who have degrees in science, math, and engineering. So why not provide incentives to get students interested in those fields? For example, a student who gets a two-year tech degree to become a machinist, or a four-year degree in engineering or math, and then works in that field could get a tax break on their student loans every year they are employed. Yes, they pay less tax, but the money they would have paid in taxes is still collected because it’s going toward paying off their student loan and they are helping to keep employment high.

Finally, we need to look at any existing programs for students and expand them to graduates. For example, some states use their lottery proceeds to offer high school students with a 3.0 or higher graduating grade point average free tuition if they go to an in-state college. Why not expand this program to help science, math, and engineering majors who have already graduated reduce or eliminate their student loans if they work in the state.

Remember, the real problem we’re facing is not the amount of student loan debt. The real problem is that the U.S. has an under-employment crisis, meaning we have people who are trained for jobs that are going away or are trained to do things that there aren’t jobs for because they need advanced education. If we’re going to be competitive in the 21st century with China, India, and other places around the world, we need to give better guidance and counseling to our students, and we need to reward the behaviors and choices we want so we get more science, math, and engineering majors. Such an approach is good for all of us because it will make the U.S. more competitive internationally—and that is the real cornerstone of our country’s future prosperity.

Daniel Burrus

Article first published as The Real Way to Avoid a Student Loan Debt Crisis on Technorati.