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Main | Building Your Career On A Firm Foundation »

Considering Skilled Trades As An Alternative To College

I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities. I am often struck by the number of students that don't know the answer to the following question when asked, "Why are you here?" At the top end, twenty percent know the answer to the question and can articulate it. The rest just look at me with bewilderment. I hear things like, "My parents went here and they wanted me to go here." or "My friends came here and I decided to give it a try." or "I felt that I needed to go to college because it was expected of me." These are not appropriate answers to this question. The average college tuition for a four-year college degree has risen to more than $80,000 for a moderately priced public university and more than $140,000 for a moderately priced private institution according to Money Magazine reported on CNN that students leaving a four-year college carry an average of more than $35000 and it is rising. In 2013 the total student loan debt eclipsed $1 trillion dollars.

Many students are graduating with degrees that are worthless when it comes to finding a job. I have talked with students that have general business degrees, degrees in liberal arts, political science and other degrees that do not equip you to bring value to an employer. So what does a new graduate do with one of these degrees? The answer is sadly work at some other job that doesn't require a specific skill related to their degree. Often these are minimum wage jobs or working as a server at a restaurant.  

At the same time there is a significant need for skilled trades. I read recently that there are more than 65,000 jobs open positions for TIG welders yet there is no place available to learn to train as a TIG welder. I know is noble to be a teacher or a policeman but when your toilet is overflowing or your lights won't come on or your car won’t start, being a plumber, auto mechanic or an electrician is every bit as noble. To quote Ashton Kutcher in is famous speech at the Teen Choice Awards, "I've never had a job in my life than I was better than." I love plumbers, electricians, carpenters, car mechanics, roofers, or anyone with the skill to create things or fix things with their hands. When I first moved to Holland, Michigan more than twenty years ago, I lived near the Baker Furniture Factory. In the mornings I would walk my daughter to school, we would pass by the factory and there would be the craftsmen hand building Baker Furniture. We could see the craftsmen hand carving ball and eagle claw feet for very expensive dining tables. It occurred to me then what an extraordinary skill this is. Not just anyone can do this work, certainly not me yet it didn’t require a degree and there is a demand for this level of craftsmanship.

All this is to say is simply this.  Not everyone is made to go to college and become a lawyer, accountant, teacher or doctor. Someone has to be the welder, car mechanic, the carpenter, roofer, electrician or the plumber. Honestly, this is good work. I know plumbers that earn more than teachers or police officers. There is nothing wrong with working with your hands. If you are considering college, I encourage you to get tested and if you can't answer the question for yourself as to why you are going to college, perhaps you need to rethink it and consider working in a trade. It's all honest work and you can support a family nicely on what a skilled tradesperson makes. Learning a trade costs far less than earning a degree. You earn while you learn in the trades and the payoff can be big. My niece works as a career counselor at a college in Michigan. This college offers certificate programs and degrees up to a Masters degree. She told me recently that young people graduating with certificates in diesel mechanics are earning more than $100,000 per year working for drilling companies in the oil fields

When we consider what we will train in there needs to be some thought given to how we will quantify what we choose. 

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