In one of the Republican presidential debates, Sen. Marco Rubio (D-FL) said the U.S. needed to focus more on equipping young people with practical skills and less on sending them to four-year colleges. "Welders make more money than philosophers," he said. "We need more welders and less philosophers."
As a college graduate, Rubio should have known to say "fewer" philosophers, not "less," but his point is valid. Some diligent fact checkers have chimed in to say that philosophy professors on average make more than welders, but that is not relevant to Rubio's point. There are precious few career openings for philosophy professors while we have a critical nationwide shortage of welders expected to reach 300,000 by 2020. In any event, welders with advanced skills can easily pull down six figure salaries and look forward to lifetime job security.
Unfortunately, few high school students are aware of this reality. The pressure on them from their schools and their parents is to pursue four-year college degrees. The result is throngs of college graduates, saddled with huge college debts, flooding a job market that has little use for them. Too many of them end up tending bar or driving taxis. There is nothing dishonorable about tending bar or driving a taxi, but it does represent a broken promise and a future compromised.
Welding is one of the skills in demand in advanced manufacturing which is constantly complaining about the dearth of job applicants with the right set of skills. Modern manufacturing is exciting, challenging work mostly performed in clean, attractive workplaces and it pays better than typical jobs in service industries. But too many students have outdated notions, no doubt inherited from their parents, of a dark, dismal factory floor performing repetitive tasks without end. It is supremely difficult to counteract such deep-seated misconceptions.
There is a fascinating array of potentially lucrative careers out there awaiting bright young people who are more inclined to physical activity than armchair intellectual pursuits: carpenters, electricians, ironworkers, machinists, masons, mechanics, steamfitters, plumbers, plasterers, computer repair experts, drywall mechanics, and medical technicians, to name a few. Careers in fields such as these offer excellent pay and benefits and excellent prospects of regular employment in years to come. There is progress. For example, the Manufacturing Institute is working to attract young people to lucrative manufacturing careers through its Dream It, Do It program which is now a series of public/private partnerships in 38 states.
The best part is that young people can enter these fields straight out of high school as apprentices and be earning decent money while they learn on the job, not just running up debt while attending academic classes. Many of the more promising practical careers do entail some additional classwork, usually at the community college level, but guess what - many of the students are eligible for Pell Grants to cover the costs of community college.
Rubio is on to something that could lift his campaign - a coherent national program to direct young people into practical careers would give a lift to business and help reduce the growing wealth gap. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, he does with the idea.
Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements. November 2015