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Tom Purcell: Skilled trades beat degree debt |

Tom Purcell: Skilled trades beat degree debt

| Saturday, June 9, 2018 12:39 p.m.
Plumber Nate Petersen prepares a pump to shoot water into the incoming city water line that was frozen Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, at a south Minneapolis home. .

When I was a 19-year-old college sophomore in 1982, my father gave me advice that makes even more sense for 19-year-olds today.

Despite his protestations, you see, I chose English as my major at Penn State. Worried about my ability to land a job, he begged me to at least minor in something practical.

I’m still the only person ever to graduate from Penn State with a major in English and a minor in air conditioning/heating.

I joke, of course, but if I were 19 now, I don’t think I’d go thousands upon thousands into debt to fund a liberal arts degree.

I’d give skilled trades — electrician, plumber, machinist, IT and many other skill sets — a serious look, because that’s where the opportunity is.

When I was in college in the early ’80s, a bachelor’s degree was the ticket into the corporate world, where the “good jobs” were. Few people were able to get their foot in the corporate door without first earning that diploma.

To be sure, a diploma has value. The purpose of a liberal arts education is to teach students not what to think, but how to think — how to approach and resolve problems, useful skills in business and in life.

However, with a glut of liberal arts majors out there, getting a foot in any corporate door is harder than ever. It’s making less sense to borrow thousands upon thousands of dollars to fund a degree that may not lead to a good job.

It’s making a lot more sense to master a skilled trade.

National Public Radio reports that “some 30 million jobs in the United States that pay an average of $55,000 per year don’t require bachelor’s degrees, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.”

Meanwhile, as millions of skilled tradespeople from the baby-boomer generation retire, there’s a massive shortage of workers with the skills needed to replace them. Thousands upon thousands of skilled-trade positions are open right now — and companies are having trouble filling them.

That’s even leading more college-educated people to give up white-collar, paper-pusher jobs to get into the trades.

As reported in The Washington Post, one 29-year-old in D.C. — he had a degree from Notre Dame — considered going to law school, like many others in that lawyer-saturated town. After watching his friends work long hours as paralegals — and watching his lawyer pals sign their lives over to their firms — he did something sensible. He became an electrician’s apprentice.

He wasn’t alone. The Post said many more 20-somethings are forgoing the white-collar world to become plumbers, electricians, mechanics and carpenters — all highly satisfying careers that can pay seasoned tradespeople six-figure incomes.

I think it’s great. We already have enough paper-pushers. We need skills.

Besides, a skilled tradesperson can earn more than many lawyers do — and likely enjoy the work more. Show me a dozen lawyers and I’ll show you 11 people who have considered quitting their unfulfilling careers to drive a cab.

Which reminds me of the joke about the plumber who fixes a leaky pipe at the home of the doctor. When the plumber successfully completes his work, he hands the doctor a bill for $600.

“Six hundred dollars for less than two hours of work?” said the doctor. “I’ve been practicing medicine for 20 years, and I can’t charge that much money.”

The plumber smiled and said, “When I was a doctor, neither could I!”

Tom Purcell, a freelance writer, lives in Library. Visit him on the web at Email him at

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