Friday, December 16, 2011

Education, work and skillz

More about work. Sorry! This post is something I have been hashing over all week and some of the concepts well before that. Some basic facts to begin with from a Biblical standpoint. I think it is quite clear that the Bible honors work. The Proverbs are full of praise for the one who works and conversely chastisement for the sluggard…
Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man. (Proverbs 6:6-11)
In the New Testament the apostle Paul often spoke about work. In his final tearful words to the Ephesian elders in Miletus Paul said….
I coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:33-35)
Paul saw work as something honorable because it didn’t burden anyone else and makes it possible for Christians to use the fruit of their labor to care for the weak and needy. Paul, if anybody could make this claim, didn’t need to work a job because of his status as an elder but he seemed to be more concerned with his example than his rights. So he worked, and from what we read in Scripture worked quite hard. Conversely Paul had little good to say about those who refused to work…
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12)
Note that Paul is not chastising the poor, many of whom did (and do) work hard for little gain. This is not his “let them eat cake” moment. He was instead speaking of those who can work but refuse to. Paul himself saw working as not only a way to earn money to help care for the poor and a way to avoid a stumbling block to the Gospel (1 Cor 9:12) but also a form of discipleship, providing an example for other brothers and by extension for us on how we should live, i.e. earning our bread by the labor of our hands. That brings us to today, here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, a nation with a trillion dollars in student loan debt and millions of Americans out of work.

I am one of the many Americans who have a four year degree in something with essentially no directly applicable vocational skills. I majored in Political Science and minored in History and from all of those classes I sat through (or didn’t), the books I read, the papers I wrote, etc. I got virtually nothing of any value in the “real world”. I have learned more about both history and politics in the years since earning my degree simply by reading decent books for minimal or no cost. In the eyes of our culture I have accomplished something quite special, something that allegedly sets me apart from those who merely graduated from high school. This mindset translates into the work world. Without a college degree, many employment opportunities are simply out of reach. The jobs I apply for almost universally list some iteration of “four year college degree” as a minimum requirement. How in the world can you be expected to possess the skills to sit in a cubicle and reply to emails without a semester or two of Women’s Studies or Sociology?

I have read two news articles in the last week that raise important questions regarding the sacred cow of college. The first was on NPR, Airplane Mechanics: A Farm Team For Everyone Else? , and the topic was the shortage of aircraft mechanics around the country and it turns out that it’s quite a severe shortage.
There are hundreds of open positions for skilled blue-collar workers and airplane mechanics — and it's been this way for years. In this economy, how can that be possible?

"These are very technically qualified positions. It isn't something that you can take an individual right out of high school and teach them how to do it," says Anita Brown, head of human resources at AAR's Oklahoma City facility for the past 28 years.

Brown says airplane mechanics at her company start earning between $12 and $15 an hour, while veterans who have their FAA Airframe and Powerplant licenses top out at $28 an hour.

Yet AAR can't keep these positions filled. Brown says the company has at least 600 open jobs. "I know Indianapolis needs about 283 [and] we're just shy of needing 200 people. They also need people in our Miami facility; we're a worldwide organization," she says.

$28 per hour is $58,000 per year. The skills you learn as an aircraft mechanic are also not only useful in maintaining aircraft but also in many other industries: metalworking, electrical work, welding, etc. Our local community college, Ivy Tech, actually offers an associates degree program in Aviation Maintenance Technology. Tuition at the Ivy Tech is $107.80 per credit hour and the program can be completed with as few as 72 credit hours, or total tuition expenses of $7,761.60. One year at Indiana University is $9,524 and I am not sure what percentage of IU bachelor degree grads make $60,000 per year anytime soon after graduation.

Then I read this morning about the looming shortage of machinists from Fox News,
On the Job Hunt: Machinists in High Demand:
America's economy was forged by machinists. But today, a quarter of the nation's welders, engineers and steelworkers are getting ready to retire. And as budget-strapped school districts cut shop classes, fewer young people are entering the trade.

The result is a shortage of skilled workers to build and run the machines that run our lives.

"There's a huge demand for machinists," says veteran machinist Louis Quindlin." They're needed both in manufacturing, and the industrial maintenance side, which is repairing equipment, either pumps or valves, for refineries, water companies, waste water companies..."

The article makes an important point, namely that a lot of the skilled machinists are rapidly approaching retirement age and very few kids today have much in the way of marketable skills to replace them. Someone needs to pay for Medicare and Social Security in the future and a shrinking pool of workers making low wages in service industry jobs for a ballooning population of retirees is untenable.

Twenty years ago when I was in school, we offered many vocational programs but even then those programs were turning into holding tanks for trouble-makers and kids who just didn’t make the academic cut. In my day those were the kids with the long hair, jean jackets and cigarettes. Today high schools are almost entirely focused on preparing students for college. People don’t move to a school district because of an awesome welding program, they move to the school district that has the best college preparatory programs. I am not even sure if schools still offer shop, woodworking and home economics classes because they are so concerned with state achievement scores and getting graduates accepted to college.

What really stunned me was this stat:
From refineries to manufacturing plants, companies are hiring-- with starting pay as high as $30.00 an hour.

"A good, top level machinist can actually earn more than a manufacturing engineer these days," says Don Castillo, a manufacturing manager at FM Industries in Fremont, California.
$30 an hour? That is huge, $60,000 per year. Not a lot of people make that much per year, even people with college degrees. By the way, our local community college also offers a plethora of programs in applied technology leading to careers as machinists and if you live near a decent sized town, you probably have a community college that also offers these programs for a fraction of the cost and half of the time of a bachelors’ degree.

Most kids, in fact the overwhelming majority, are not going to grow up to be doctors. Everyone knows that. We certainly don’t need more lawyers. Accounting and actuarial work is always needed but is painfully boring and being an actuary especially requires serious math skills. Engineering and the various medical professions (like physical therapy, nursing, etc.) are in demand but are also academically rigorous and medical professions like nursing often require weird work schedules. Most degree programs at traditional four year universities have minimal application in the work world and based on what I have observed having a liberal arts degree is no longer any sort of indicator of a person’s ability to think critically, speak in public or solve problems. It is mostly a measure of their ability to make it through four years of schooling interspersed with lots of drinking.

So why are parents not encouraging our kids to learn a trade of some sort? It is cheaper than college, pays well and is in demand. What is the problem? Are we averse to having our kids work with their hands?

In a way I think it is exactly that. Going to college has been painted as an integral part of the “American dream”, the gateway to middle-class life. High schools, especially in the suburbs, proudly (or not) wave around the stats of how many of their graduates go to college. Colleges feed this with academic reports that paint dire pictures of life without a four year degree. When you lump all of the high school grads or even high school drop-outs in with those with some sort of technical training, you are going to get skewed numbers. As the articles above demonstrate, young adults with some minimal training in a marketable field are going to live quite comfortably without the expense of a college “education”.

There is a theory called the military-industrial complex that suggests that an unhealthy relationship exists between the military, the government and the industrial world that supplies armaments. I think there is a lot of truth to that idea and that something similar exists in the world of “education” where the education establishment keeps pushing the idea that you must go to college to be successful which in turn leads to demands to the government to “make education affordable”, a notion they accomplish by making it possible for kids with no income and no credit to borrows tens of thousands of dollars in unsecured student loans which in turn allows those same education institutions to keep raising costs, thus defeating the notion of making college education affordable. As the chart to the right shows, the cost of college is exploding compared to the rest of the economy but no one bats an eye until the student loans need to be repaid and the early twenty-something with $100,000 in debt, a degree in Art History and a minimum wage job becomes a vagrant protestor with Occupy Wall Street.

Sending your kids to community college to learn a marketable skill is not failing as a parent. We have spoken with our oldest son about getting a two year degree in some sort of computer field, getting a job and letting his employer pay for the bachelors’ degree. I would be just as fine with my sons getting some sort of applied technical degree instead of a degree in psychology or English. Just because someone gets dirty at work and wears jeans instead of khakis doesn’t mean they are a failure. Maybe we should be less eager to have our kids get expensive sheepskin status symbols and more eager to have them learn marketable skills? Instead of leaving school and entering adulthood with a six figure debt load, aren’t many of kids better off with no debt and a marketable skill?


James said...

While my earnings at my current 4 year level are nothing to shake a stick at, my skills, and the academic knowledge the followed them, came together nicely. In my field, I use everything I learned everyday.

Some of it saves my life on a regular basis.

But then again, if humans truly were altruistic, who would need social workers?

Craig Schmidt said...

Thank you for this post. I have been wrestling with some work issues myself and this gives some guidance to me, and to others I am counseling. I wanted to give you a link to a video that supports much of what you have said here. I put this on my Facebook page awhile back and I hope the link is still good.

You can click on the College Conspiracy link on this page. It is worth watching.

God's blessings to you.

Arthur Sido said...

James, I would classify social work as a more vocational degree with specific skills aimed at a specific career. Of course you also know what the burn-out rate for social work is compared to engineering or actuarial science.

Jeff said...

I used to wear jeans to work to do Land Surveying. I loved it. Hard work, but rewarding. Now I wear khakis to work in a bank and I stare at a computer all day. Wishing I could go back ten years and do things differently! Hopefully my sons will listen to their ol' dad when it comes time for these decisions to be made.

James said...


I think there is some sense in your comment. Agreeably, the vocation of Social Work is more concentrated on a specific purpose. Although it is often to do with people, there are facets of the profession that never get hands-on with people.

As far as burnout in comparison to engineering and actuarial sciences, I know some pretty stressed out engineers. I don't know what actuarial science is and I am too lazy to Google it right now.