For a long time now, I’ve been harping about how overvalued college has become at the expense of young people entering skilled trades. Students are told a degree is necessary for success, for higher paychecks throughout life and for greater financial security during retirement. If the amount of hate mail I get whenever I touch on this issue is any indication, it’s a surprisingly hot-button topic.
Many people on the left side of the spectrum tend to dismiss my opinion as biased and unfair. In their eyes, I’m trying to tear down their beloved institutions in which bright young students can receive degrees in agenda-driven victimhood and activism. Yet no one seems to think skilled blue-collar trade careers are worth investigating. Those jobs are for losers, man.
Though I freely admit believing the vast majority of non-STEM liberal arts degrees are useless at best and detrimental at worst, now I have a powerful progressive voice backing me up. No less a liberal luminary than National Public Radio also laments the dearth of good people entering the trades.
In a blunt article entitled “High-paying trade jobs sit empty, while high school grads line up for university,” NPR starts by profiling a young man named Garrett Morgan. “All through my life it was, ‘if you don’t go to college you’re going to end up on the streets,'” Morgan said. “Everybody’s so gung-ho about going to college.”
Morgan tried college and didn’t like it. Risking the threat of being “on the streets,” he started training as an ironworker. “Seattle is a forest of construction cranes,” noted NPR, “and employers are clamoring for skilled ironworkers. Morgan, who is 20, is already working on a job site when he isn’t at the Pacific Northwest Ironworkers shop. He gets benefits, including a pension, from employers at the job sites where he is training. And he is earning $28.36 an hour, or more than $50,000 a year, which is almost certain to steadily increase. As for his friends from high school, ‘they’re still in college,’ he said with a wry grin. ‘Someday maybe they’ll make as much as me.'”
Consider these two scenarios:
John Smith goes to college and studies History with a minor in English. During his four years in school, he acquires $30,000 in student loan debt. Upon graduation, he is dismayed to find the only employers hiring History/English majors are Starbucks or Motel 6, so he decides to pursue a graduate degree with an eye toward teaching at a college level. He spends another three years in a Ph.D. program and emerges by age 25 with a doctorate and another $30,000 in debt. He is lucky and lands a position as a professor at a college. Now he can start building his financial portfolio, right after he pays off the $60,000 he spent on his education.
Charles Jones decided to skip college and become a mechanic. At 18, he apprenticed himself and began learning about engines and machinery. By age 25, he owns his own garage with a waiting list for his services. By age 40, just as John Smith finally pays off his student loans, Charles is able to pay off his house, invest heavily for his retirement and cut back to a three-day workweek.
Who has done better in life? Sure, John Smith can brag that he has a Ph.D., but it’s Charles Jones who had the smarts to know the ticket to success. (Incidentally, Charles Jones is based on someone we know. I didn’t make him up.) And what has John Smith accomplished? He’s now in a position to teach others how to be unemployable.
The one thing liberal arts majors are completely missing is the law of supply and demand. Before spending many years and thousands of dollars obtaining a degree, make sure there is a suitable market for that degree in the first place. This is the sad reason so many graduates can’t find jobs commensurate with their education, and why Starbucks probably has the most highly educated staff in the nation.
But liberal arts degrees are often worse than just useless. “High school graduates have been so effectively encouraged to get a bachelor’s that high-paid jobs requiring shorter and less expensive training are going unfilled,” notes NPR. “This affects those students and also poses a real threat to the economy.” [Emphasis added.]
Read that again: A shortage of skilled workers is “posing a real threat to the economy.” Whoa.
Curious to learn more about the deficiency in skilled labor, I reached out to an institution called American College of the Building Arts in South Carolina, the nation’s only four-year college dedicated to traditional trades such as masonry, architectural stone work, plasterwork, ironwork, timber framing, etc. I learned some very interesting stuff.
An ACBA representative, Leigh Handal, told me: “Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 storm, caused extensive damage to many architecturally and historically significant properties in Charleston in 1989. As local property owners sought highly skilled artisans to repair and restore these important residences and public buildings, it became clear the last generation of highly skilled artisans in America was quickly dying out. The emphasis in contemporary building trends is to do things quick and cheap, in a mass-production type of process. Some Charlestonians had to go all the way to Europe to find traditionally skilled artisans in such specialties as forged iron, timber framing and architectural carpentry, and the trowel trades such as plaster, stone and masonry. A group of these historic property owners recognized the need to provide training that would keep the traditional building arts alive in America in order to preserve our nation’s architectural treasures.”
Additionally, she said: “Nearly all of ACBA’s graduates are employed within their trade within three months of graduation. They’re not just employed, they are employed in the field for which they trained.”
Other smaller organizations such as the Sustainable Heroes Project teach earth-friendly building techniques such as cob and straw-bale construction, built for and by veterans as rehabilitative training and education.
The resources are out there, folks. Unless you’re studying a STEM subject, don’t become a threat to the national economy; be a contributor. We need people whose passion and vocation is to build up.
Not tear down.