This is but one reason to consider acquiring an "education" outside of the traditional college setting. Have you ever really thought about what the internet allows to be at our fingertips? Sure, you won't have that fancy little piece of paper called a "degree" but that's a cultural attachment that we have been conditioned to seek and to require. It's time to change all of that. The possibilities are limitless and without the massive debts incurred.
A plumber fixes a boiler. Photograph: Alamy
19 February 2013
I have a graduate degree, and I work two part-time jobs. One is teaching writing at a university; the other working at a supermarket. People don't believe me when I tell them I make more money per hour bagging groceries than I do lecturing on literary techniques.
On occasion I run into old colleagues from my early career days while I'm on shift at the grocery. Their reactions range from mild embarrassment to disdain (curled lip and all) to pity; usually a combination of all three. Sometimes there's an awkward backpedaling on their part: "Well … it's a tough economy out there," or "Hey, whatever pays the bills, right?" before they shoulder their reusable ChicoBags and beat a hasty retreat.
We are a society that glamorizes white-collar professionals at the expense of their blue-collar counterparts. We take our cues from the likes of Mad Men, White Collar, or The Apprentice, not Dirty Jobs (whose name alone tells us how we as a culture deem the show's profiled professions, however lucrative). We all want to "suit up", not "uniform up". We associate office jobs with higher levels of class, income and education; "menial" jobs with lower status.
The traditional formula has always been: college = white-collar job = success. To achieve this covetable endgame, parents prep their children, as young as four-years-old, for the college path. Private pre-nursery school interviews are conducted with the sort of competitive rigor reserved for university admissions. What's most disturbing in all of this is not our desire to want the best for our children, but how narrow our definition of success is.
At a time when unemployment is at an all-time high and college tuition continues to climb, the old formula no longer upholds. Students emerge with their hard-earned degrees and the college loans to show for it, but for what returns? The majority do not land a six-figure banking job straight out of school. According to the Economic Policy Institute, wages for recent college graduates have not grown over the last decade, and actually dropped from 2007-11. In 2011, that average was just $16.81 per hour, a figure that barely makes a dent into student debt. The average wage for high school graduates is $9.45 per hour, a figure not much lower than that of a newly-minted university graduate, especially after you factor in tuition costs as well as the four years of being out of the workforce.
Some decide to sit out the bad economy by pursuing an advanced degree, aiming to boost their future earning potential. It's a risky move in a climate where even Ivy League MBAs and lawyers are not immune to one or more rounds of layoffs. A college degree is increasingly becoming a privilege for those from higher-income households. The only guaranteed payoff from a college degree is the bill you'll be forced to pay every semester (and, likely, for years after you graduate).
Compare this doom and gloom to some "menial" jobs. Blue-collar professionals like electricians are enjoying 23% job growth this decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They earn on average $52,910 a year, almost $10 more per hour than recent college grads, and the top 10% earn at least $82,680. Welding, light truck driving and plumbing are just some of the blue-collar fields with similar earning potential, and the vocational training required is a fraction of the cost of a college degree. If financial freedom is your ultimate endgame, then going into business for yourself can increase earnings exponentially, a message Rich Dad, Poor Dad has been peddling since the beginning of this millennium.
But do these blue-collar jobs lead to fulfillment? It is certainly an argument I'm sympathetic to. We are told to do what we love; the money will assuredly follow. Your average kindergartener doesn't dream of growing up to become a master plumber. But you can also make the counter-argument that there is a personal satisfaction that comes with being financially solvent. There's also something to be said for a job you can clock in and out of, leaving work safely behind, as opposed to one finger-swipe away. It creates more time for family, friends, and other enriching pursuits (… or a second job).
In this tight job market, we cannot afford to ignore the reality that a college degree is becoming a luxury: one that no longer translates directly to success. It is time we shed our stigmas towards "menial" workers. The irony is that their salaries – and accompanying lifestyles – are anything but.