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January 24, 2017

Skilled trades compete well with college grads

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 68% of high school graduates go on to attend college. Young people face enormous pressure from family and friends to do so. The biggest reason is the belief you cannot find a good job without a college degree. The media is filled with stories showing that college graduates earn much more money over a lifetime than people without a college degree.

Those stories are misleading. I’ll explain why.

image of tradesThe research behind that data compares the income of all college graduates with the income earned by all non-college grads, then averages it out. By this measure it’s no doubt true that the average college graduate earns much more than the non-grad. But it’s good to keep in mind the old saying that if you have one foot in a bucket of ice and another in boiling water, on average you will be quite comfortable. That’s how misleading averages can be.

What these averages fail to take into account are vast discrepancies within those categories of college graduates versus non-graduates. The graduate category includes highly skilled professionals who earn enormous amounts of money. The non-graduate category includes high school dropouts and others with no marketable skills who struggle to earn minimum wage – or earn no wages. Keep in mind that the earnings of a single brain surgeon will surpass that of scores of burger flippers – and infinitely higher than someone unemployed. So much for averages.

A better comparison would be between the typical college attendee and persons who don’t go to college but acquire a skilled trade.

Consider that among the 68% of high school graduates who go to college, only 40% of them will end up graduating with a degree. They will have wasted a lot of time and money, and many will have burdensome college loans to pay off.

Moreover, even among those that stick it out and earn a degree, the BLS has determined that 37% of college graduates are working in jobs that don’t require one. You see them all over town working in coffee shops and retail stores, tending bar and waiting tables in restaurants.

The vast majority of those underemployed college graduates earn less money than the average plumber, electrician or HVAC technician.

If you want to become a doctor, lawyer, engineer or some other highly educated professional, then of course you need to go to college.  If you are fascinated by history, literature, art, music and so on, by all means go on to college and study those subjects. Just be aware that you will probably find it hard to earn a high income in those fields.

But maybe you don’t feel much at home in classrooms and lecture halls. Maybe you enjoy working with your hands creating and fixing mechanical things. Use those talents to acquire a skilled trade and enjoy a career with endless opportunities to earn good money, including perhaps owning your own trade business someday.

Then you can smile as you leave big tips for all those friends of yours who went on to college and are now serving you drinks and meals!