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Go to trade school, young man

About two years ago, I got a call from a dear college friend. We chatted for a long time, catching up on each others’ lives. Among the news was that her son Tim had just graduated from college with a degree in civil engineering.

“That’s wonderful!” I said. “Where is he working?”

There was a short silence. “Well, actually, he’s working at the gardening department of Home Depot,” she admitted. “He couldn’t find a job as a civil engineer.”

This conversation stayed with me because it illustrates the problems so many highly qualified, highly educated college graduates are facing in today’s job market. Competition for employment is intense in a depressed economy, and many young people are unable to fulfill their dreams and realize their ambitions.

This is why an article on soaring trade school enrollment caught my eye. The article discusses how much in demand skilled workers have become, with paychecks comparable or exceeding those with college degrees. The students attending these schools range from young people right out of high school to older unemployed college-educated workers returning to school to learn a trade.

Once upon a time it was simple: Like clockwork, ambitious kids graduated from high school, attended the college or university of their choice, graduated, found a job in their field and worked steadily throughout their adult years.

This recession (some call it a depression) has changed all that. Too many ambitious college-educated young people emerge into a workforce that cannot support them and does not want them. Even before the 2008 market crash, there was a glut of overly degreed workers. And now we hear sad stories all over the nation every June about how newly minted graduates fight for jobs as baristas at Starbucks. Meanwhile their earning potential is crippled – crippled, often for life – by crushing student loan debt.

But it’s more than just a depressed economy. Over the last few decades, the media, government and of course universities have convinced us that the only way to be happy, productive and successful is to get a college degree in … anything. Those who opted for vocational school were considered second-class citizens.

To fulfill their expectations, students take out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans to get degrees in Equality Studies or English Literature, only to discover upon graduation that there are few jobs in those areas. Their ego might be boosted, but not their earnings potential.

I come from a family that values education to the nth degree. My parents sacrificed and went deeply into debt to send their children to college. Now that they’re older, they simply cannot fathom that the situation has changed for their grandchildren and that the single-minded pursuit of a degree may no longer be the best option in today’s economy. The world my parents grew up in is gone. With the current job market, I feel it is irresponsible to push college on young people without regard to their prospects for employment after graduation.

This is the issue facing our 16-year-old daughter, who expressed a strong interest in two separate fields of study: library science and nannying. She loves books, and she loves children. What to do?

I explained that most librarians are employed by county governments, and library funding has been cut drastically by financially strapped counties all over the nation. Whereas her targeted nanny school has a long waiting list of families seeking accredited nannies. Our daughter decided that her prospects for employment are much higher as an accredited nanny than as a degreed librarian.

To young people thinking about their future, I urge you to ask yourself this question: Are you going to college because you have a burning career ambition only a college degree will fulfill? Or are you going to college because you’re “supposed” to, even though you haven’t yet decided on a field of study?

My husband and I – who both have master’s degrees in the sciences but who make our living with a woodcraft business – met dozens of people during our college years who hadn’t declared a major. Their goals were vague. They were simply in college because it was the thing to do, and it was expected of them.

But college costs have soared, making such vague goals a mighty pricey thing. According to CNNMoney, “For more than two decades, colleges and universities across the country have been jacking up tuition at a faster rate than costs have risen on any other major product or service – four times faster than the overall inflation rate and faster even than increases in the price of gasoline or health care. The result: After adjusting for financial aid, the amount families pay for college has skyrocketed 439 percent since 1982.”

Whereas my daughter can emerge from nanny school, credentialed and qualified, for significantly less than $10,000. Her employment prospects are near 100 percent, and her earning potential is tremendous.

My friend’s son chose the field of civil engineering because he’s a responsible young man who was trying to maximize his earning potential in order to one day support a family. It was not necessarily because of his burning desire to be a civil engineer. Ironically he now feels he can’t pursue marriage until such time as his job situation improves.

For young people today, I urge you to realistically consider your future based on the jobs market versus the cost of education. If you truly want to be a doctor, by all means begin the educational process to fulfill that ambition. But if you’re not sure what you want to do, I beg you not to waste your money (or your parents’ money) on overpriced educational institutions that will shackle you in debt and provide you with a useless degree … especially when your friends who went to vocational school are earning over $70,000 a year.

As a side note, my friend’s son Tim has returned to school. Machinist’s school. With his knowledge of civil engineering, being a machinist is a natural fit; and he believes it will provide better job opportunities. You see, he met a young lady, and they’d like to get married and start a family. Tim knew he couldn’t support a family while working at the gardening department of Home Depot.

It’s a smart young man who learns from his mistakes. I urge other young people (and their parents) to learn from Tim’s. College is not a requirement for a fulfilled life.

Find out more in Whistleblower magazine’s April 2012 issue: “THE COLLEGE ILLUSION: Why chasing a degree so often ends in financial and educational chaos”