One of the curious outcomes of this recent recession and slow recovery may be a rethinking of how Americans view their careers and go about training for them. While attending and graduating from a four-year college has long been billed as the golden ticket to a quality life, there are signs that this may be changing. Although some sort of post-high school training and skill development is very important, it may be the case that blue collar skilled trades should get a second look.
The College Problem
One of the major issues in education today is the growing cost of a four-year college education. Numerous articles and studies have explored how the cost of attending college has not only outstripped inflation, but lapped it many times over in recent decades. This is putting education further and further out of reach for more and more people without resorting to loans, and increasing the student loan debt burden to an almost unsustainable degree.
Now comes the second part of the college problem. As affordability is declining, so to is the utility of some degrees. Simply put, there just aren't enough jobs in the U.S. today that pay enough to legitimize borrowing $50,000, $100,000 or $250,000 to attain a bachelor's degree in English, history or education. Even apart from the poor employment prospects for over-supplied liberal arts degrees, there is the matter of how those who do get jobs manage to get by – many employed recent college graduates find that even with Spartan lifestyles (living with their parents, for instance), they are very nearly overwhelmed with repayment obligations for their student loans.
A Failed Premise?
In some respects, the advocacy for a collegiate education and white collar work harkens back to past bubbles in the financial markets. In the 1970s Michael Milken discovered that high-yield bonds (junk bonds) were undervalued relative to the actual experience of default. He made a fortune for himself and his employer from this discovery. As time went on, though, others noticed this and began getting involved in high-yield bonds. Soon, the supply was running thin and Wall Street went into action to create more supply – inducing companies to issue junk bonds to pursue dubious acquisitions and expansion plans.
This fundamentally altered the market, and the original discoveries and insights of Milken were no longer valid because the bonds and bond market were so different. Something very similar happened with subprime mortgages and the housing bubble – early participants noticed that there was real value there, but that value vanished as everybody else crowded into the market.
Perhaps the same thing is happening to higher education. There certainly was a time when a college degree was relatively rare, and only a privileged few could hope to pursue it. As time went on, though, the greater earnings potential of white collar work was identified as a good thing for the country, and large numbers of people were encouraged to pursue post-secondary education – perhaps too many. Now, the situation seems to be one where many people with four-year degrees have to settle for jobs where basic tasks and responsibilities simply don't require post-secondary education (or its attendant debt). (For more, check out Top 6 Jobs That Don't Require Degrees.)
The Blue Collar Case
One of the interesting aspects of the recent recession has been the unevenness of unemployment. There has definitely been high unemployment in service jobs and low-skill manufacturing jobs, but many industrial companies ((including Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT) and Boeing (NYSE:BA)) have complained that they cannot find enough skilled workers for their needs. In other words, there are shortages in skilled blue-collar trades like welding and machining.
It's not hard to see how this shortage has come about. Many high schools have dropped vocational education, altogether, in the quest to boost the reported number of graduates going on to four-year colleges. At the same time, blue collar work has been largely devalued and scorned in the culture with expressions like "work smart, not hard."
Supply and demand is working as it should, though. An increasing number of jobs that nominally require four-year degrees are paying wages that don't economically support the pursuit of those degrees, because there's such an over-supply of college-educated workers. On the other hand, pay for skilled vocational trades is in some cases 50% higher than these jobs, and doesn't require the same level of expensive schooling – welders have recently seen median pay climb above $50,000, with wages sometimes doubling that in certain circumstances (like the labor-starved markets in energy-rich areas like the Bakken and Marcellus).
The Bottom Line
There is no such thing as a career path that guarantees employment, as even PhDs in life sciences are seeing unemployment as a byproduct of government funding cuts. It may be case, though, that the argument for pursuing a four-year college degree has gone too far and reached a point where there are too many people pursuing degrees with low expected returns. While the best and brightest in any discipline will always find a way to make a living, there's simply a limit to how many undergraduates with degrees in political science, communications or biology the market can absorb.
This is not an argument for dropping out or de-prioritizing school. Rather, it's an argument that those who are inclined towards skilled vocational trades should not be mocked or belittled for it. America will always need welders, plumbers and electricians and those jobs cannot be outsourced. Better, then, to be a happy welder than an under-employed and dissatisfied cube-worker trying to pay off college loans in a job that really doesn't challenge or reward those skills honed in college.
In the supposed battle between blue collar and white collar, the only color that should really matter is where a particular person can find the most green for them. (To help you find the green, see 8 High Paying Jobs That Require 2-Year Degrees.)