Monday, August 12, 2013

College is Not the Only Option

My son's dream job

 As older sisters are prone to do, my daughter enjoys sharing the depth of her wisdom with her younger brother. Ian is convinced that Catherine knows everything . . . and so is Catherine. As the new school year is now in full swing and Ian already anticipates NEXT fall, when he finally will get to ride the bus to school with his beloved big sister, he offered this glimpse into his future, "I am going to go to elementary school and then high school and then when I turn eighteen I am going to go to middle school!"  Catherine was quick to correct:

"No, Ian, that's wrong. First you are born and then you go to elementary school and then middle school and then high school and then college and then you go to work and then you start to die."

While I certainly appreciated my daughter's straightforward, albeit somewhat sobering, synopsis of the path of life, I had to offer one adjustment to her explanation:

"Actually, Catherine, you don't HAVE to go to college. There are lots of great jobs you can do without going to college. Maybe you will decide to go, maybe you won't."

Now, I know that flies in the face of advice she will be getting from every guidance counselor and teacher and all those politicians who find some great merit in setting goals to raise the number of college graduates in the city, state, or country they happen to be charged with governing. But I feel strongly that I do not want my kids to go to college just because that is the expected next step after high school.

Look, my son wants to work on an "excavator truck" and to be "a fixer man." Tonight as we were reading a book about these very occupations, he asked how he would get such a job. I responded, "When you finish high school, you find someone who does that job really well and work for that person and learn all that you can." I didn't say, "Well, son, continue on with your education and earn a business or a sociology or a political science degree and then in four years you'll be no closer to being trained to do what you want!"

Perhaps these goals of moving around dirt and constructing houses are those of a four-year-old boy and they will pass. Maybe not. If his dreams change, I will support him and offer my advice for his best course of action. If in six or seven years he says, "Mom, I want to be an engineer who designs the most fuel-efficient vehicle ever to roll off an assembly line" or "I want to cure pancreatic cancer," then my advice to him will become quite different.

We live in a time where more college graduates are returning home to live with their parents than ever before. Sure, the troubled economy plays a role here, but maybe some of these young men and women shouldn't have gone to college at all and would have been much happier and more fulfilled . . . and quite gainfully employed . . . if other possibilities were deemed acceptable by parents, teachers, coaches, friends, etc.

Experienced plumbers and carpenters and electricians are waving red flags and screaming that the number of people in the generation behind them who have the skills for these professions is far too small. Do you know how much a person who can rewire your house can make? Or what kind of job security is in store for someone who knows how to fix a carburetor or unclog a toilet? Our children and teenagers are being discouraged from pursuing these important trades anymore. Why?

Two years ago, Mike Rowe, host of the television show Dirty Jobs, testified before Congress about the desperate need for skilled labor. I loved every word of it, so allow me to share extensively here:

Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The skills gap is real, and it's getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They're retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them. 

In general, we're surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn't be. We've pretty much guaranteed it. 

In a hundred different ways, we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a "good job" into something that no longer looks like work. A few years from now, an hour with a good plumber, if you can find one, is going to cost more than an hour with a good psychiatrist. At which point we'll all be in need of both. The skills gap is a reflection of what we value. To close the gap, we need to change the way the country feels about work.

We've eliminated the vo-tech programs in high schools across the country, wonderful courses that helped students to build real skills and perhaps find their occupational passion. We've told kids the lie that they need a college degree to succeed. High school administrators pat themselves on the back when they can brag that a high percentage of their seniors are going on to college. Great. We now have a bunch of students at four-year institutions taking remedial math and English courses after doing the minimal work needed to finish high school. That's a fantastic accomplishment. How about instead a high school principal announces, "We have a graduating class in which 87% of students are really excited about what they are doing next!" Get my kids to that school!

Every spring, my church recognizes its high school graduates. They all walk up on stage and the youth leader announces where each one will be attending college. I asked someone this year, "What about the kids who aren't going on to college?" The response was, "I don't know. I guess they just don't come to church that day." This is not a knock against my church, which I love, because I've seen this same emphasis repeated in other environments time and again. Other post-graduation pursuits just don't seem to be as valued in our society anymore.

Why can't we applaud the member of a graduating class who scored an amazing job working for a well-respected home builder or the one who wants to be a chef and therefore is waiting tables at a prestigious restaurant while forming a relationship with the sous chef who promises to teach her everything he knows? How about the phenomenal seventeen-year-old violin player who knows she wants to spend her life making music and whose talents are being scouted by professional orchestras now? What about the guy who is excited to wake up early the day after high school graduation and get to work on an "excavator truck"? He might be the one who finally gets that mess on I-440 running smoothly.

I'm not saying college is useless. Not at all. I LOVED school. I loved buying textbooks every semester and listening to fascinating lectures and taking part in great discussions and even taking exams. I graduated with honors, always made Dean's List, was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, blah, blah and so on. I also loved all that college taught me outside the classroom, like the earth-shattering revelations reached during 2:00am conversations that seem so deep when you are nineteen years old and how to live (somewhat) independently and the important tool of time management (such as -- how do I stay out in D.C. as long as possible without missing the last Metro back on a Saturday night). But, I am not going to teach my children that is their only possible path. It may be the one they need to take in order to achieve their dreams. But, perhaps they will follow the words of Robert Frost (who I will make sure they know whether or not they go to college) and take the road less traveled by their peers.

In about fifteen years, for one reason or another, you are going to need a "fixer" for something . . . and you might just be calling my son!