A friend of mine directed me to this article a few days ago, where Mike Rowe (of Dirty Jobs fame) discusses college degrees vs learning a trade that's in demand.
Mike has been preaching this gospel for awhile now, and he's got some really good points. Not everyone is college material - and that's not a swipe at anyone's intelligence or economic level. College is a waste of time for some, it really is. And worse, it's a waste of money, particularly for many people sucked into the new "for profit" universities that have been cropping up all over the place.
Not every college degree will guarantee you a living wage - and as a person with a Theatre degree, I can guarantee that. My college degree landed me a job in retail when I graduated, right next to everyone who didn't have a degree, making the same wage. Only I had student loans to pay back.
I don't consider my degree useless, however. My theatre training guaranteed I could sell, and that landed me successively better positions in retail and then on to other corporate sales jobs after that. I finally worked my way out of sales into administration, and I'm happy with the company I'm at. The college degree may not have set me up for where I'm at directly, but it has opened doors that wouldn't have opened without it.
I've had several times where I had similar skills to another candidate vying for the same job, but that degree set me ahead in the running. That degree ensures my resume goes higher up on the pile when Human Resources implements its sorting software. That college degree is always an interesting talking point in any job interview. Fellow alumni are a great networking source that has paid off for me on more than one occasion.
Am I better or smarter than any other job candidate or worker for it? Not necessarily, but the mere ownership of that degree has been a valuable tool. Using it (and how I use it) is up to me. If you go to college expecting your degree to get you a great job, you're not doing your part. The degree is what it is - a piece of paper that represents your skill set and might get you a little more notice. How you leverage that is what makes you an asset to your employer.
Mike Rowe is a good guy and his graduation speech, "Don't Follow Your Passion" is spot-on and should be required viewing for every graduating senior, but during the interview referenced in this article, the interviewer made a point about people being taught in college by esoteric instructors who "Don’t see the dignity in welding, maybe."
Mike agreed with that, but I have to disagree. I have a lot of respect for people in the trades, and so does every college-educated person I personally know. Our water runs, our lights come on, our heaters work and our lawns and homes look terrific because of these people. And thanks to my years as a teen fast-food worker and later an adult retail worker, I have a healthy respect for anyone working a minimum wage job. Not one of us considers a plumber or a building contractor beneath us, especially when we're signing the check to pay them - good God, they make a good amount of money because they provide valuable services.
But there's a trade-off that goes with it, and that's what makes me glad I have that college degree. These people work with their hands. They bend and crouch all day. They work on ladders, or scaffolding, or on their knees. They lift heavy things and often work with dangerous equipment. I'm not too lazy to do or learn to do any of that (I've worked plenty of retail jobs that had me hauling heavy merchandise and standing on my feet all day) but I'd really, really like to have a good quality of life in my retirement years.
And the sad truth is, my office job may only pay me what a novice electrician makes in a year, and half of what a good plumber makes, but I probably won't need knee replacement surgery in twenty years, or have a high chance of chronic back pain, or crushed/cut/missing digits. Hard physical labor takes a toll over time, and it's a toll you have to be willing to pay. Some people would take it and gladly, because the thought of being cooped up in an office cubicle all day sounds like a nightmare to them.
I get that.
I just wish more people who decided against college would stop deciding that those of us who did go to college did it because we wanted to be better than everyone who didn't. Or that we're all so privileged. I paid for my college myself, and I'm not sorry I did. I've made the most of it.
I'd love to live in a world where poets and teachers were paid what pro-athletes were paid, but none of us live in that world. I'd also love to live in a country where the girl taking my order at McDonald's was paid a living wage. I don't live there, either.
But I do live in a country with all kinds of people. Encouraging higher education is something we should do, and we should do our best to make it affordable (like our counterparts in Europe) for those who choose that path. Encouraging trade school is something that should be done as well, and not with a sneering disdain for anyone teaching French Literature, or a brash declaration that college is a waste of money, because not all degrees and colleges are.
Our children are our future, and we need all types of careers out there, the poets and the plumbers. And we should all respect each other no matter which path we choose.