Attending college and getting a degree were, after all, the prerequisites for entry into the middle class existence I had learned were the norm. This was a path that a great number of us were told was the best (if not only) route to gainful employment and enduring financial security. And (naturally) all of the news magazines on my parents’ coffee table informed me how much lower my chances of success were without at least a four year degree.
Well those magazines are all a couple of decades old now. Having walked the suggested path and seen others attempt it has helped me (and others of my generation) see that college is far from a one-size-fits-all method of joining the workforce. The recession, cost of education, and global competition for white collar jobs have created an environment in which parents, guidance counselors, and employers need to take a more discriminating look at what they tell youngsters preparing for life in the workforce. College isn’t for everyone. To suggest otherwise to another generation of Americans will be setting a number of them up for something other than success.
Many parents continue to entertain the notion that in order to land a good job a four year degree is necessary. This idea isn’t so much incorrect so much as it is incomplete. Yes, formal training of some nature drastically improves your child’s chances of success in the workforce. This training does not, however, always come in the form of a costly trip to college. What other option is there you ask? We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about why college isn’t the gilded path we imagined it to be thirty years ago.
- A degree doesn’t differentiate you from the competition the way it used to. Anyone who has tried to find a job recently will attest that a fancy college degree doesn’t confer a great advantage over the next person, who invariably will also hold a degree. It’s true that at one point a bachelor’s degree nearly guaranteed employment–it just doesn’t carry the same weight anymore. And while it may come as a shock, a bachelor’s degree isn’t required for some of the better paying–and in demand–jobs on the market.
- Having a degree in a particular field doesn’t ensure your placement in that field. Just last year Jeffrey Selingo of the Harvard Business Review pointed to the fact that two thirds of college graduates struggle to launch their careers. In a study conducted for his book, There is Life After College, he found that only about a third of college students hit the ground running after graduation and were able to quickly enter the career they had studied for. From personal experience, such findings seem generous.
- The cost associated with getting a four year degree isn’t necessarily worth the increased income it can land you. A recent study by the U.S. Census Bureau on the return on investment offered by college concluded that graduates on average make a little more money than non-graduates. However, Anthony Carnevale, director of one of the Georgetown University programs, told NPR how misleading some of those statistics can be. Carnevale went on to say that electricians without a college degree make about $5,000 more per year than the average college graduate and don’t have to contend with the same tuition expenses. It’s also noteworthy that the same study found bachelor’s degree holders in the bottom quarter of their class earned no more than high school graduates.
“Ok, so college isn’t the silver bullet it used to be, but it’s still the only way to land a decent salary, right?” While it is true that some careers necessitate going to college, it is also true that many available high-paying jobs don’t. This brings us to our alternative to the four year college I mentioned above: Trade School. “What?” You say “I didn’t spend x number of years working as x so that my child would go to work as a construction worker.” Well, that is certainly a response that a person could have, but just like the presumption that college is necessary, turning one’s nose up at the building trades is the result of an incomplete picture. Let’s talk about why.
- Jobs requiring vocational schooling on average pay nearly the same as those requiring a bachelor’s degree. As of 2016 there were around 11 million jobs in America that did not require a bachelor’s degree and paid over $50,000. Of those, 4 million jobs paid more than $75,000. The cost difference between trade school and a four year college is staggering. The average cost of a 4 year degree is over $120,000, the average cost of vocational school is around $33,000. And it’s common to see the cost of a 4 year degree rise to $200,000 or even $300,000. Trent Hamm, creator of “The Simple Dollar”, points out that the difference between those figures is actually much greater than that after factoring in the interest that will need to be paid back.
- Working with your hands is demonstrably rewarding. This is certainly the case for author Matthew Crawford, a man who is no stranger to higher education. Crawford received a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago in 2000, and went on to work on his postdoctoral fellowship. While a person with these credentials seem destined to work a white collar job, Crawford opted for the position of ‘motorcycle mechanic’. In 2009, Crawford published the book “The Case for Working With Your Hands” in which he outlines the many reasons people should consider trade school, including the mental stimulation that comes with solving real-world problems. In a New York Times Magazine article, Matthew wrote, “I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents”.
- Working in the trades offers job security. Princeton economist, Alan Blinder states that most people believe the divide in the labor market is between those who are highly educated and those who aren’t. Blinder argues that in the future “the crucial distinction in the labor market will be between … ‘personal services’ and ‘impersonal services.” He refers to ‘personal services’ as those that can only be efficiently performed face-to-face, or at a specific site, and ‘impersonal services’ as those that can be outsourced. While technology continues to improve our communication, outsourcing will only become easier, giving trade work, and ‘personal services’, more job security by comparison. Or as Blinder puts it, “You can’t hammer a nail over the internet”.
- Jobs in the trades offer upward mobility. While some think working as a skilled tradesman is a dead-end, the truth is quite the opposite. Skilled tradesmen with the desire to take on additional responsibility can work their way up the ladder. Showing a promise in leadership qualities, one can become a manager. Depending on the company or union, there can be many levels that people are able to work their way up through. Not to mention, there are many options for skilled tradesmen to have a traveling position. For welders this may be work as a traveling industrial pipe welder, or a military support welder (which can pay up to $200,000 per year).
“Ok, so college isn’t a guaranteed meal ticket and vocational schools offer a promising alternative. How do I know what’s right fit for me or my child?”
That’s a good question. Figuring out who should go to college–and who shouldn’t–can be tricky. New York Times columnist Judith Scott-Clayton argues that those who don’t wish to go to college simply shouldn’t. Obviously this is something of a sweeping statement; parents and guidance counselors will have to exercise their best judgement when drawing the line between foot-dragging and vocational incompatibility. Consider having your child shadow a relative or friend who works in the trades. Ask yourself if your child likes to work with his/her hands. Do they show a greater aptitude for learning outside of a traditional classroom environment? Weigh these things and invest accordingly. Clayton suggests higher education is akin to gym membership; it can be worth the money, but only for those who go to class and participate. The comparison is apt.
Within the first two days of life in the dormitory I had met a young man named Joe whose chief area of study was drunkenly using his mother’s credit card to play online poker. We could always tell how the game was going based on the words he shouted from his room. College wasn’t the best fit for Joe. Joe wasn’t using his gym membership.
I never questioned that I would go to college, but like those magazines on my parents’ coffee table I’m a couple decades older now. I have more data to operate from and so do you. Four year colleges continue to provide an irreplaceable service to our students and employers, but they are no longer a sure bet for a brilliant career, nor are they the only option available for bright people who want to work. A career in the trades is not only a prime alternative to a bachelor’s degree in terms of financial compensation and benefits, it is also offers job security, opportunity for advancement, and a chance to experience a rewarding, hands-on career while reshaping the industrialized world we live in.
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