Whether in mining, construction, fabrication and assembly, equipment installation and repair, or other industries, there is a shortage of skilled tradesmen/ technicians to do essential work. More than a few of my clients lament they can’t find enough good mechanics, electricians, welders, pipefitters, or general maintenance workers; if they do, it’s hard to keep them, because they are in such high demand.

Most of the tradesmen I have worked with, especially the older ones, do not have a four-year college degree. Some do not have a high school diploma or a GED. A common theme I have heard from more than a few of my friends in the trades: “My kids are going to go to college so they don’t have to work like this. I want them to have it better than I did.”

As a father of five, I fully understand (and share) the sentiment of wanting them to have it better. But none of them work in jobs that depend directly on their liberal arts college experience. Their bachelor’s degree was not foundational to their career; it served mainly as an entry ticket, not as preparation for their work.

College is an expensive proposition

At the flagship university in the University of North Carolina system, the fully loaded annual cost for in-state students is around $24,000 per year, and for out-of-state students, around $52,000. UNC Chapel Hill boasts that its costs are among the lowest in the nation for state universities, and that nearly half of their students receive some amount of financial aid. Still, it’s not cheap. The cost of attendance at a prestigious private Ivy League school like Princeton is estimated at around $75,000 per year. My school, Davidson College, is approaching that figure as well.

I know this is a sensitive topic, especially within the halls of academe, but there are serious discussions outside those halls about the actual value of a college education, especially for liberal arts majors. What do those well-meaning families and their offspring get for their investment, which can easily total somewhere between $100 – $300k?

The debt load with which many students graduate is heavy. An estimated 45 million Americans currently have student loans, averaging roughly $37,000, and totaling $1.5 trillion. Of all borrowers, around seven percent have current debt in excess of $100,000.

College is not for everyone

Here’s where it gets even more sensitive. An estimated one third of all students who enter college drop out before finishing a degree. There are many reasons for dropping out, but a common one is “I learned it’s not for me.” As college increasingly becomes an expected “Grade 13 – 16,” it is likely that more and more people who don’t know why they are going in the first place will not stay with it. Dropping out, or opting out, are legitimate choices. Not every dropout or no-go will be a Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or Rush Limbaugh. But they can be very successful, by any measure.

Say a high school student has mechanical aptitude, likes fixing things, and is not much interested in social science or history or French or calculus. Smart and capable, yes, but not academically oriented. That student might be carried by the cultural wave (and parents’ expectations) into college. Let’s say that after two years, that student decides “it’s not for me.” Maybe $60,000 has been spent, some in the form of student loans. If that smart and talented student had gone into the skilled trades instead, he/ she would most likely have been employed right away, with salary and benefits comparable to those of a new college grad. If that student is ambitious, he/ she can move up in the trades, even without the four-year degree. I know more than a few non-degreed technicians who have nice incomes indeed, especially if they work some overtime. A move into supervision would likely increase their salary and benefits in the long term as well.

Three relevant examples

Many years ago, I was on a committee charged with conducting a salary survey for faculty positions at my institution. We historically compared our salary and benefits with those of similar colleges. I decided to broaden our comparison group to include non-academic positions in our geographic area. I found our salary for beginning assistant professors, Ph.D. in hand, was the same as our local transit system was offering beginning bus drivers -- and their benefits were better.

Second, a radio commercial that recently ran in my area was looking for Class A CDL truck drivers for a nationally-known company. The stated beginning salary is comparable to that for beginning assistant professors nationwide.

Third, as I write these words, we have an appliance repairman at our home, fixing a temperamental dishwasher. With his permission, I asked him a few personal questions. Did he have a college degree? No. Was he well compensated, salary and benefits, by his company. Yes. Were there opportunities to “move up”? Yes. The sign on the back of his service van read, “Hiring Technicians… have a great career with top pay and benefits…”

Young fixers and makers and doers, pay heed. The skills of mechanics, service techs, machinists, electricians, pipefitters, welders, millwrights, and plumbers are so valuable, and so needed. Parents, pay heed. While college is the right choice for many, there are also many honorable jobs and satisfying careers which do not require the four-year degree.