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The Stigma Against Skilled Labor: Replace Free College with Trade Schools

College is expensive. To that point, 68 percent of 2015 graduates left school with student loan debt, with a national average per student of $30,100.[1] “Some 44 million Americans hold $1.31 trillion in student loan debt, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports. To put that figure in context, Americans hold $779 billion in outstanding credit card balances, a figure nearly half the size of the total student loan burden. Americans with student debt hold, on average, around $37,172.”[2] This burden does not come without serious implications to both individuals and society at large. For instance, the rate of home ownership among those under the age of 35 fell from 43 percent in 2005 to just 31 percent in 2015. Income that may otherwise be put toward retirement savings is redirected at repaying this hefty debt, pushing the projected retirement age of millennial graduates to 75.[3]

And yet, the cost of college continues to rise: since the mid-1980s, tuition has increased by an average of 22 percent per five-year period.[4] Between 2008 and 2013, “the percentage of all high school graduates who immediately enroll in college [fell] from 69 percent to 66 percent.”[5] Fewer people are making the immediate transition from high school to college, and those who do are subject to the rising costs and the implications of that trend.

Over this same period, the number of younger people in skilled trades also declined – for myriad reasons, graduates are not entering the trades. “The skills gap is wide, and getting wider. Six million available jobs currently exist – most of which don’t require a four-year degree. Two years ago, that number was 5.4 million. Back in 2008 […] the number was 2.3 million.”[6] In 2012, only 47 percent of such workers were under the age of 45.[7] As we continue to lose the experts in these fields to retirement without growing new practitioners of the trades, we will be left with a vacuum of experience and no reasonable solution.

Particularly worrisome are the essential industries where training is virtually unavailable outside of the military. One of these is calibration, where only a handful of formal metrology programs exist outside of the schools run by the branches of the armed services. To compensate, companies in the industry have started hiring entry-level employees to train internally or college graduates with engineering degrees but without formal metrology training. These engineers, despite their education level, are forced to start their careers in positions that are typically filled by people with less than a year of formal training.

Many have suggested that the solution to the rising cost of college tuition is to subsidize public universities through tax revenue. A major pillar of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Presidential Election platform focused on this approach.[8] However, the underemployment rate among recent college graduates is alarming, continuing to float around 40-50 percent per a 2014 study.[9] This compels thousands of college graduates to take lesser-paying jobs that do not require degrees in order to begin paying off their excessive student loans, a process which can easily take 20 years. There is a better way.

With the cost of college being roughly double (or more) the cost of trade schools,[10] [11] even comparable employment rates would significantly reduce the strain on young people entering their careers. While jobs requiring college degrees do generally have higher salaries in the long-term, entry-level position salaries favor the trade school graduates heavily. “The average starting salary for a 2017 college grad is just a smidge under $50,000 ($49,785, to be exact).”[12] Entry-level trade school jobs are reported with a median salary of around $66,000.[13]

The dropout rate for trade schools is an astonishingly low 1.6 percent, compared to a whopping 40 percent for colleges.[14] Most trade school programs are completed in 2 years or even less. This reduced time commitment with a significantly higher chance of finding a good-paying job immediately after graduation results in more success within the training itself. There are thousands of trade schools throughout the United States. Many of those schools are actually operated by local community colleges, bringing with them accreditation and legitimacy.

Mike Rowe, widely known for his role as host of the TV show Dirty Jobs, is a strong proponent of skilled labor and trade schools. His charity, the mikeroweWorks Foundation, provides scholarships for those “with a passion to get trained for skilled jobs that actually exist” – and there are lots of them. [15]  While the connotation of “skilled labor” often brings about images of electricians or welders, the highest median salary among these trades is found with dental hygienists, and followed closely by several other medically-related roles, including Registered Nurses.[16] The trades are not a greasy monolith.

Contrary to popular beliefs, there are perks to employment in a trade. The practical, hands-on training provided in trade schools make these employees highly desirable to potential employers. College degrees are often, at best, only loosely related to the tasks of a given job, but vocational schools focus on the types of skills and tasks that are the day-to-day work of skilled labor. Companies with trade jobs often provide tuition assistance to help their employees advance their careers, typically within the same company. Combining years of experience in an industry with a degree obtained through employer-aided higher education yields better managers who have in-depth knowledge of the fields they oversee. It also provides individual workers with satisfying career progression and potentially high earning potential.

Education is important to career success, but the current paradigm suggesting that transitioning from high school directly to college is the only viable approach to that success is incorrect. For evidence of this, one need only observe the employment path of recently separated military veterans. While approximately 50 percent of veterans leaving the military use unemployment benefits in the first fifteen months post-separation, approximately 95 percent of them use no more than twenty-two of twenty-six weeks of benefits authorized.[17] With past training and experience, they quickly find quality employment. Veterans also benefit from a significant community designed to assist in their transition from military service to civilian work. This type of support structure is mirrored by many technical schools, which, in addition to providing great job placement opportunities directly out of training, often follow and assist their alumni as their careers progress.

Paradigms are shifting. With no judgment value implied, college need not be for everybody. Rather than perpetuating the expectation that young high school graduates immediately dive into college (and emerge into debt and underemployment), we should encourage technical schools for useful training to fill the labor gap in skilled trades. The choice to pursue skilled labor as a career is not the end of career progression; it is a viable launching point to a richly fulfilling education and experience.


[1] DiGangi, Christine. 2017. The average student loan debt in every state. April 28. Accessed August 20, 2017.

[2] Donachie, Robert. 2017. Student Loan Debt Still Tops Credit Card Debt In America. February 21. Accessed August 21, 2017.

[3] O'Shea, Arielle. 2017. New Grads Won’t Be Able to Retire Until 75, Study Finds. Accessed August 22, 2017.

[4] College Board. n.d. Tuition and Fees and Room and Board over Time, 1976-77 to 2016-17, Selected Years. Accessed August 17, 2017.

[5] American Council on Education. 2015. Where Have All the Low-Income Students Gone? November 25. Accessed August 17, 2017.

[6] Rowe, Mike. 2017. 2017 Work Ethic Scholarship Announcement. August 7. Accessed August 18, 2017.

[7] Wright, Joshua. 2013. America's Skilled Trades Dilemma: Shortages Loom As Most-In-Demand Group Of Workers Ages. May 7. Accessed August 17, 2017.

[8] Sanders, Bernie. n.d. It’s Time to Make College Tuition Free and Debt Free. Accessed August 17, 2017.

[9] Abel, Jaison R., Richard Deitz, and Yaqin Su. 2014. "Are Recent College Graduates." Current Issues in Economics and Finance 20 (1). Accessed August 17, 2017.

[10] College Board. n.d. Tuition and Fees and Room and Board over Time, 1976-77 to 2016-17, Selected Years. Accessed August 17, 2017.

[11] Sorrentino, Johanna. n.d. How Much Does Trade School Cost. Accessed August 17, 2017.

[12] Tuttle, Brad. 2017. New College Grads Could Be Looking at the Highest Starting Salaries Ever. May 12. Accessed August 21, 2017.

[13] Simply Hired. n.d. Trade School Salaries. Accessed August 21, 2017.

[14] Career School Now. n.d. Trade School vs Traditional College. Accessed August 21, 2017.

[15] 2017. About the Foundation. August 18.

[16] Trade Schools, Colleges and Universities. 2017. 27 Highest-Paying Jobs That You Can Train for in 2 Years or Less. August 10. Accessed August 21, 2017.

[17] Department of Veterans Affairs. 2015. "2015 Veteran Economic Opportunity Report." Department of Veterans Affairs. Accessed August 17, 2017.