Skilled trades beat de­gree debt


When I was a 19-year-old col­lege sopho­more in 1982, my fa­ther gave me ad­vice that makes even more sense for 19-year-olds to­day. De­spite his protes­ta­tions, you see, I chose English as my ma­jor at Penn State. Wor­ried about my abil­ity to land a job, he begged me to at least mi­nor in some­thing prac­ti­cal.

I’m still the only per­son ever to grad­u­ate from Penn State with a ma­jor in English and a mi­nor in air con­di­tion­ing/heat­ing.

I joke, of course, but if I were 19 now, I don’t think I’d go thou­sands upon thou­sands into debt to fund a lib­eral arts de­gree.

I’d give skilled trades — elec­tri­cian, plum­ber, ma­chin­ist, IT and many other skill sets — a se­ri­ous look, be­cause that’s where the op­por­tu­nity is.

When I was in col­lege in the early ‘80s, a bach­e­lor’s de­gree was the ticket into the cor­po­rate world, where the “good jobs” were. Few peo­ple were able to get their foot in the cor­po­rate door with­out first earn­ing that diploma.

To be sure, a diploma has value. The pur­pose of a lib­eral arts ed­u­ca­tion is to teach stu­dents not what to think, but how to think — how to ap­proach and re­solve prob­lems, use­ful skills in busi­ness and in life.

How­ever, with a glut of lib­eral arts ma­jors out there, get­ting a foot in any cor­po­rate door is harder than ever. It’s mak­ing less sense to bor­row thou­sands upon thou­sands of dol­lars to fund a de­gree that may not lead to a good job.

It’s mak­ing a lot more sense to mas­ter a skilled trade.

Na­tional Public Ra­dio re­ports that “some 30 mil­lion jobs in the United States that pay an av­er­age of $55,000 per year don’t re­quire bach­e­lor’s de­grees, ac­cord­ing to the Ge­orge­town Cen­ter on Ed­u­ca­tion and the Work­force.”

Mean­while, as mil­lions of skilled trades­peo­ple from the baby-boomer gen­er­a­tion re­tire, there’s a mas­sive short­age of work­ers with the skills needed to re­place them. Thou­sands upon thou­sands of skilled-trade po­si­tions are open right now — and com­pa­nies are hav­ing trou­ble fill­ing them.

That’s even lead­ing more col­legee­d­u­cated peo­ple to give up whitecol­lar, pa­per-pusher jobs to get into the trades.

As re­ported in The Wash­ing­ton Post, one 29-year-old in D.C. — he had a de­gree from Notre Dame — con­sid­ered go­ing to law school, like many oth­ers in that lawyer-sat­u­rated town. Af­ter watch­ing his friends work long hours as par­ale­gals — and watch­ing his lawyer pals sign their lives over to their firms — he did some­thing sen­si­ble. He be­came an elec­tri­cian’s ap­pren­tice.

He wasn’t alone. The Post said many more 20-some­things are for­go­ing the white-col­lar world to be­come plumbers, elec­tri­cians, me­chan­ics and car­pen­ters — all highly sat­is­fy­ing ca­reers that can pay sea­soned trades­peo­ple six-fig­ure in­comes.

I think it’s great. We al­ready have enough pa­per-push­ers. We need skills.

Be­sides, a skilled trades­per­son can earn more than many lawyers do — and likely en­joy the work more. Show me a dozen lawyers and I’ll show you 11 peo­ple who have con­sid­ered quit­ting their un­ful­fill­ing ca­reers to drive a cab.

Which re­minds me of the joke about the plum­ber who fixes a leaky pipe at the home of a doc­tor. When the plum­ber suc­cess­fully com­pletes his work, he hands the doc­tor a bill for $600.

“Six hun­dred dol­lars for less than two hours of work?” said the doc­tor. “I’ve been prac­tic­ing medicine for 20 years, and I can’t charge that much money.”

The plum­ber smiled and said, “When I was a doc­tor, nei­ther could I!”

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