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May 27, 2009  |  Is college the only path?  |  8331 hit(s)

Among people I know, the discussion for the most part is not whether a kid will go to college, but how this college business is going to be paid for. People start college funds for their toddlers. A college degree is seen as the minimum entry point to a career, or was back when people still talked about careers.

But between the mania for outsourcing that started in the 90s (or thereabouts) and the current economic downturn, the golden ticket of a college degree is looking a little tarnished.[1] A person with a pessimistic POV might wonder why we're training all these kids to jump into a job pool that, at least for the moment, seems to be drying up.

Assuming I'm reading trends correctly, we therefore seem to be undergoing a little bit of a, um, adjustment in how we view the skilled trades. Back in March, the NPR correspondent Adam Davidson appeared on the radio program "This American Life." His mission, he said, was "to save his cousin DJ's life, to make his life better." Save it how? Cousin DJ had dropped out of college. By dropping out of college, Davidson maintained, you are making a conscious decision "to not partake in the economic growth and possibilities of the coming decade." The program then featured a three-way conversation between Davidson, his cousin DJ, and the economist Pietra Rivoli, whom Davidson had enlisted to help him convince cousin DJ of his folly.

You can probably see where this is going. Dr. Rivoli sided with DJ; specifically, she sided with him because DJ has job experience and skills that pay decently, that are in essential trades, and most importantly, that cannot be outsourced. In contrast, as a journalist, Davidson himself, Mr. College, could easily be out of a job any time. (You can listen to the podcast; look for episode #350 on the 2009 program archive page. This segment starts at 8:29.)

This last weekend, I had the interesting experience of having a tree guy come over with his massive stump-grinder machine and chew up a huge stump. He came at 10:00 AM; we were the second of five appointments he had that day. He doesn't like stump grinding, he said (his weekday work involves comparatively tamer work with a chainsaw), but he can pick up $1000 in a day with his big chomper. If this weekend was typical for him, he's sure not hurting for work. And even if work slows down, he's not going to get laid off -- he owns his own business.

In an article "The Case for Working With Your Hands" in this week's New York Times magazine, Matthew Crawford makes the same point again:
This seems to be a moment when the useful arts have an especially compelling economic rationale. A car mechanics’ trade association reports that repair shops have seen their business jump significantly in the current recession: people aren’t buying new cars; they are fixing the ones they have. The current downturn is likely to pass eventually. But there are also systemic changes in the economy, arising from information technology, that have the surprising effect of making the manual trades — plumbing, electrical work, car repair — more attractive as careers. The Princeton economist Alan Blinder argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labor market is not between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person or on site. The latter will find their livelihoods more secure against outsourcing to distant countries. As Blinder puts it, “You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.”
Crawford goes on to describe the satisfaction he derives from repairing motorcycles, especially in contrast to the type of white-collar work he did before. He explicitly addresses some assumptions about manual work:
When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options.


A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions.


The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid.
The emphasis in Crawford's article, as well as in Dr. Rivoli's conclusion, is on skilled trades. Cousin DJ has an array of construction skills, including framing and cabinet-making. Crawford is a doctor of the mechanical world, and in our day and age, the skills of a good mechanic can sometimes seem as essential as those of a good G.P.

It's hard for me at this stage of life to imagine what it might have been like to be, say, an electrician instead. But it's not something I shudder to think about, or that I would panic about if one of my children unaccountably developed a career goal that involved the trades. I am happy that I went to college, and am happy that that's what my kids are doing. But it's clear enough to me that success does not start only when you pick up your diploma.

[1] Preemptive clarification: I know that gold does not tarnish. Metaphoric references here should not be interpreted as misunderstandings of metallurgical facts.

JaAG   30 May 09 - 10:23 AM

It's good to have options. I'm working with a grandson in his teens. Start with all F's and since I've been working with him he gets Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs. You know, we're in the crawl phase of helping him. But he will probably never go to college. So besides the military, it's nice to have options like trade school.

mike   30 May 09 - 11:00 AM

Or apprenticeships.