Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Can We Please End the False College/Career Dichotomy?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I think this false war started with a discussion about welders. The Help Wanted ads for welders started to go unanswered, and people got understandably nervous—it’s hard to foresee a sustainable society without them.

It didn’t take long, however, for this rather focused concern to take on a life of its own. “All those darn teachers and counselors are telling kids they need to go to college—four years of college—and now we’re running out of welders. Not everyone needs college, and we need welders. Darn teachers.”

This initial salvo was followed by an armload of articles with “data” pointing out that holders of four-year college degrees earn about $1 million more over a lifetime than workers who have other credentials. This, in turn, was met with the saga of The $80,000 Welder, a story that has been reprinted and cited more often than Liam Neeson’s speech in Taken. It was as if the career tech people were saying “Let’s see your English majors make that much in a year. Ever.”

We’ve been off to the races ever since, with “pro college” folks and “pro career” folks taking turns trying to convince the world their view is the only right one. If you want to keep your options open, you have to go to college for four years—unless of course you want to avoid a mountain of debt that will keep you from buying a house and eating avocado toast, in which case you should go into a career tech field.

In the interest of our students—remember them?—perhaps we should reset, and re-center, the discussion:
  • It’s absolutely true you can make $80,000 a year as a welder, and in many other tech and manufacturing fields—in fact, you can make more. Industrial pipeline welders can pull in six figures a year; it’s likely they’ll have to like working in humid climes or Alaska, but if you do, you can easily make more than most four-year college graduates, making sure pipelines maintain their integrity.
  • That said, the average salary for welders is in the upper $30,000 range. Given the median household income in the US is a little over $63,000, you would likely need a two-welder household to be an average income earner in most states. That tends to be the case for many careers in manufacturing and in tech.
  • Neither of these statistics by themselves should deter a student from becoming a welder, going into manufacturing or going to college. Most articles about careers—and far too many about college—treat the subject as if making money is the only goal, when there are a number of other factors to consider, including—dare I say it—if the student likes the idea of becoming a welder, manufacturer, or college student. If devaluing money sounds like a bad idea, think about the last time you encouraged a student to pursue a four-year degree in studio art, where they’d likely go into about $30,000 of debt for an uncertain employment picture. The argument there is that artists have souls that need to be expressed. Couldn’t we say the same thing about welders, and manufacturers, who are much more likely to find steady employment?
  • Why is this an either/or discussion? Students don’t always get to step into their first choice lifestyle right after high school, and it’s way past time we helped them make plans accordingly. Those who can scrape together the funds to become a certified welder will find themselves making more money than working in retail, to the tune of about $12-15,000 more per year. That’s enough money to pay for college classes in cash, giving students more than enough opportunity to earn a four-year degree, debt-free—and suddenly, they’re on to their next career, having made a lifelong dream come true. It will take more than four years, and working while going to school brings its own challenges. But if the main impediment to a BA is available cash, a temporary career in the trades can solve the problem.
The low birth rate of the 2000s is leaving colleges and career programs struggling for students, so it’s understandable if they’re ratcheting up the rhetoric about their programs. The key here is to make sure counselors don’t let students get caught in the crossfire, by making sure the talents, needs, and interests of the student are at the center of our counsel, and not our own biases about life as a welder, manufacturer, or anything else. If we can do that, the possibilities truly are endless.


  1. Wonderful article, thank you!

  2. I agree with what you are saying about the crossfire. The issue isn't taking sides it is adults and even counselors have a hard time understanding career development and decision making. School counselors take one course in career, that does not make them an expert. What needs to happen is students need to be given the right tools to make career choices and that includes exploring and experiencing different types of work.
    College is just another place to train for a career the issue is colleges need to change their model and start doing a better job preparing students for work, that does not include all liberal arts classes. Same thing with K-12 we have the same model from the industrial age. We need to get with the times and start offering more courses for students to take that blend science, math, and english together for the purpose of training and preparing for future careers. On top of that the government needs to make changes to how we prepare students for work.
    We need to help our children become empowered to make career decisions that fit who they are and what they value.

  3. Thank you for your thoughts, they are well-needed and timely. I especially appreciate your point about reducing the discussion down to making money as the only goal. It reminds me of the educational system in Finland, where they have lesser focus on this dichotomy (e.g., I wish some of that educational reform would gain traction in the U.S.

  4. This is a great article. This is so true in every aspect. Our students have so much pressure to not only go to college but to get into a good college. I was talking to someone a few days ago who works for FIA and they mentioned how they have so many college degreed coworkers who are working on the "line". They could not get a great paying job after college and must work at the "plant" to live and to pay off student loan debt.

  5. As a Counselor I've been thinking about this a lot: "Why is this an either/or discussion? Students don’t always get to step into their first choice lifestyle right after high school, and it’s way past time we helped them make plans accordingly." Since people are "settling down" later in life, students shouldn't feel pressure to settle into any field immediately after hs.

  6. Interesting piece, thank you.

    In my state there is a huge demand for anyone with a skill and that's great for some job seekers; there shouldn't be a stigma about being an electrician, carpenter or trades-person.

    However, some minds prefer to understand life through advanced language, math and science courses and those people should get college degrees. I like that Dr. O'Connor also mentions that people can move in and out of several careers, even jobs at different levels (manual vs. professional positions). Job mobility is a wonderful part of American culture and we always have 2nd to nth chances in the USA (compared with some countries).

    Question: if the "...colleges and career programs [are] struggling..." why does college tuition keep rising so dramatically and why do some of the best schools accept fewer than 5% of the students? Seems to me they could merely accept more international students to fill enrollment gap? Generally if a service or product isn't selling one lowers the price and makes more accessible, not less accessible...