Underrated in America: The trades

I'm the first person in my immediate family to go to college. And I make vastly less than any of them. Why? While I was paying the big bucks for fancy-schmancy degrees, they were plying their trades.

Dad's a pool-man and manufacturer of pool tools. Brother Dave is a sign-painter. Both are hard-working, entrepreneurial, and prosperous as a result.

Sometime in the Go-Go '80s, it seemed that the archetypal American worker lost cache. The hard-working tradesman got overshadowed by the flashy, money-making executive. All you ever read about was how to get an MBA, how to get a white-collar job. Where Rosie the Riveter was once the symbol of honorable American Labor, she was replaced 40 short years later with Gordon Gekko. (And you see where the bankers have led us.)

Not everyone can or should go to college. You can make a better living working as a tradesman than you can in any number of jobs that require a four-year-degree (I'm thinking, ah, journalism...for one). How much Joe-the-Plumber actually earns notwithstanding, skilled tradesmen can and do earn a robust living, and in many ways have more control over their incomes than any corporate middle manager.

Don't miss the rest of our series on Underrated In America!

The most facile of arguments for learning a trade instead of going to college include:
  • They can't outsource your job (nobody in India is going to come repair your air conditioner, for example.)
  • You can work for yourself if you're so inclined.
  • Union benefits -- unions have their critics, of course. But if you like the idea of a fair wage and health insurance, it's worth joining up.
  • You actually learn to do "something." Train for a tangible skill that nobody can later take away from you.
And yet vocational courses at high schools around the country are being cut for lack of funding. Apprenticeships where young people actually learn how to construct or fix things have taken a back seat to unpaid internships geared toward "knowledge" workers.

Some forms of vocational training are growing, however. Technical training, such as fixing the electronics and computers now embedded in everything, are taking off.

Europe seems to have a much-more highly evolved system of vocational and trade schools. In Finland, for example, nearly 50% of young people head onto the vocational rather than academic track. This seems to make a lot more sense than our system, which seems to feel that vocational training is second-best to the four-year academic route, when in fact, society needs more mechanics, carpenters and computer technicians than it does consultants, lawyers and middle managers.

I tell my own kids that they can go to college or learn a trade. Although their parents are college-educated professionals, I want them to know that it's honorable to learn a trade, and that they can make a good living with satisfying work by going that route.
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