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Considering Technical School and Lifetime Earnings

A recent article by CNBC’s Jessica Dickler makes great points about the benefits graduating from a two-year college and pursuing some careers traditionally considered blue-collar. Graduating from a four-year college is a worthwhile accomplishment, but it is not an assurance that you’ll end up with a high-paying job.

Why not? Pay, hours, debt, lifetime earnings, and personal interests can affect your decision to get a four-year college degree, and also impact what happens after you finish. (For related reading, see: Your Financial Planning: Don't Go It Alone.)

The State of Pay Rates

Many jobs that require a college degree don’t pay well. Teachers, bank professionals, social workers, human resource analysts, lab workers, and other professionals have important jobs, but our society is not willing to pay high salaries for those particular skills at this time. And when you consider that these employees may also have college loan debt, which averaged about $35,000 per student in 2016, it can be hard to make ends meet and even harder to get ahead as an employee in many traditional white-collar professions.

It’s interesting to note here how difficult the job search can be for Millennials who have college degrees but no specific, saleable skills: in 2011, more than half of college grads (53.6%, 1.5 million grads) under age 25 were unemployed or underemployed, according to an analysis of current population survey data by Northeastern University and research from Drexel University economist Paul Harrington.

Conversely, many blue collar, technical school jobs—like the jobs the students in Dickler’s article are training for—pay very well. Skilled, trained blue-collar workers earn $45,000 to $100,000 or more annually. That job set includes trades people (carpenters, ironworkers, cement masons, pipe fitters, operators, laborers, etc.), transportation workers (truck drivers, public transportation workers), automotive technicians, workers in the oil and gas industry; healthcare technicians, police and safety workers, enlisted military personnel and others. That kind of annual financial muscle makes the college-educated social worker’s salary seem even more puny.

No Overtime Hours

In addition to the relatively low wages these types of salaried jobs provide for graduates of four-year colleges, overtime is usually unpaid, which drives the effective wage even lower. For example, if you work 50 hours per week as a communications consultant with a salary of $32,000 (or $15.38 for a 40-hour week), you get the same salary as if you work a normal 40 hours. That means you actually earn $12.30 per hour rather than $15.38 when you put in 50 hours. Bosses at most professional jobs expect their workers to put in unpaid overtime. You could refuse, but it’s likely you’ll be replaced by another eager, unemployed college grad willing to earn $12 an hour.

When you work in most blue collar fields, you get paid for your overtime, often at a time-and-a-half rate. (For related reading, see: Putting Your Money to Work for the Greater Good.)

Rising Debt

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “in the last few years, student loan debt has hovered around the $1 trillion mark, becoming the second-largest consumer obligation after mortgages and invoking parallels with the housing bubble that precipitated the 2007–2009 recession … the proportion of the U.S. population with student loans increased from about 7% in 2003 to about 15% in 2012; in addition, over the same period, the average student loan debt for a 40-year-old borrower almost doubled, reaching a level of more than $30,000.”

Grad students incur even more debt, and their salaries, especially if they work in education, aren’t usually high enough to make that master’s degree (which is a great academic boost) a worthwhile return on investment financially.

If it turns out that college isn’t for you or if problems prevent you from graduating, you can end up with lots of debt and no degree to show for it. Having put in hours toward college doesn’t qualify you for a job that requires a degree, so you could end up with the debt and without the necessary letters behind your name. In contrast, blue-collar training requires fewer years and costs less than a college degree; in some fields, you learn on the job while being paid. (For related reading, see: 3 Tasks to Cement Your Financial Literacy.)

The Plight of Lifetime Earnings

Additionally, many professional jobs have relatively low caps on how much an employee can ever make. Most professions have customary top limits on the amount an experienced worker is likely to make after a long, successful career, but the limits for a lawyer, doctor, or computer scientist—that only the most elite and specifically trained college grads nab—dwarf the limits for reporters, museum curators, most of those employed in religious organizations, rehab counselors, radio announcers, recreational workers, legislators in local government, marriage counselors, historians, social workers, and biological technicians.

It’s not that these lower-paid jobs aren’t important, but the fact is that they just don’t pay very much at the beginning of your career or at the end. When you become a museum curator, you’re consigning yourself to a life of relatively low earnings. If you’ve got student loans to pay off as well, it might not be a comfortable way to live.

Is Tech School Right for You?

When you consistently earn a lower salary, you make less over the course of your career. For example, a guidance counselor’s median salary is about $43,000, which works out to about $2.4 million over a lifetime career. An ironworker making about $72,000 per year could earn about $4 million. Such a dramatic swing in lifetime earnings is enough to make you consider options other than four-year college. (For related reading, see: Summer Interns: Time to Focus on Long-Term Gains.)