“Whenever you remove any fence, always pause long enough to ask why it was put there in the first place.”
– Gilbert K. Chesterton
There has been a resurgence of attention paid to the skilled trades over the last few years. From social media, to news outlets, to your grandparents, everyone seems to believe it is now common sense to pursue a career in the skilled trades. And it’s hard to fault their logic. There is an aging workforce in the industry. There is a lack or qualified individuals across the trades at any given time all across the nation. There is no college degree (read debt) required to gain entry to the industry and a good craftsman in any skillset can make a good, honest living. The industry even has several celebrity spokespeople such as Mike Rowe (Dirty Jobs), Adam Carolla (perhaps the most listened to podcaster), Nick Offerman (Parks & Recreation), to name a few. But anytime a crowd is quick to rush one way, I find there is often wisdom in at least glancing in the other direction – if only for a moment.
There is no shortage of commentary around this topic. You will find endless arguments in favor of getting a college education and you will find endless arguments in favor of a career in the skilled trades. But like most truths, I don’t believe the correct answer lies wholly in either direction. Instead of a “No, but..” this topic should be viewed as a “Yes, and..”. Firstly, these two options are not at odds with each other and should not be viewed as mutually exclusive. One of the reasons for this faulted view of the situation is because many (present company included) have had a jaded view of higher education. To be sure, the higher education system is not without its faults. All systems constructed by human intelligence will always be susceptible to imperfections. The cost is quickly getting more and more burdensome. There are 45 million borrowers who collectively owe nearly $1.6 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S. Student loan debt is now the second highest consumer debt category – behind only mortgage debt (source, Forbes). The route to a career in the trades, however, can often cost nothing other than time. By a quick comparison of the fiscal conversation alone, they two paths seem like obvious opposites. But by holding this very shallow view of the conversation, I think we miss the deeper complexities at play.
It would be helpful to ask why this situation has unfolded the way it has. What factors have led to the American workforce largely choosing to go college (upwards of 69% of high school graduates enroll in college) over pursuing a more straightforward, promising, and fairly lucrative career path in the trades? Why has there been such an emphasis placed on college and higher education while a perfectly viable career in the trades seems to have developed a negative stigma – at least in our collective subconscious? As with most decisions, I believe these decisions were heavily influenced by parents or influential figures in our children’s lives who, with the best of intent in the world, wanted their kids to have a better life than they did – than their parents did. (Never mind the fact that real wages haven’t risen since the late 1970’s for a vast majority of Americans).With this resurgence of interest, attention, and funding towards putting our kids on a career path in the skilled trades, I think it would do us well to remember the reasons for the evolving shift in our collective perceptions that I believe took place.
After a few decades of protestant work-ethic in the trades, many people found themselves with bad backs, worse insurance, and little to no retirement. Decades of enduring physical strain and manual labor day-after-day will take its toll on even the most formidable workers. In the same vein, if a craftsman has serious injury, his career could be suspended or even in jeopardy of being over. A skilled craftsman can have serious difficulty transferring his / her skills to a new job. On the other hand, someone with a college degree, or a “knowledge worker”, may not rely on his / her physical attributes as much for gainful employment. On top of that there are numerous studies that seem to indicate blue collar workers as having an overall lower life expectancy, having a higher tendency for developing at-risk behavior and dependency issues, having to work longer until they reach their retirement, having a higher likelihood of developing serious arthritis while still on the job, having lower levels of retirement, all while generally earning a lower lifetime salary.
And while it’s true that careers in many of these industries have changed and evolved for the better over the years, I believe it’s also wise to keep in mind the reason we pushed the recent generations in the direction we did. For better or for worse. So, before you’re caught up in the zeitgeist and strap your kids into a hardhat, remember why the shifts took place. Remember the reasoning behind the trends. And whenever you remove any fence, always pause long enough to ask why it was put there in the first place.