These days it seems everyone wants to send today’s young people to college as soon as they finish high school. You can’t watch TV or go online without seeing a report that “proves” that college graduates earn about three quarters of a million dollars or more over their lifetimes than those who skip college.
Not much wonder that the vast majority of teens have plans to go to college. For the last 15 years, they’ve had a goal — usually set by their parents, teachers, and even friends — to attend college. For some, that’s where they belong. But is it really the best way to earn a living wage?
Sorry, I’m not buying it.
Here’s the thing: According to all the experts, college graduates earn more than those without a degree; as much as $800,000 more over their lifetimes! That’s a lot of money.
But that’s an average, and averages are often skewed by people on the ends of the scale. For example, those college graduates include the commodities trader who made $126 million last year, and the president of Exxon, who made $24.3 million.
It includes the accounting and business majors, many of whom came to college with a set of valuable skills and then chose a degree path that parlayed those skills into a lucrative career. It’s a smart choice for them, and it’s likely to pay off in the long run.
But averages can skew both ways: The average for non-college graduates includes the cashier at the local gas station and the guy who sweeps the floor at the nearby grocery store. Honest work, but not very highly compensated. Those jobs skew the average pay to the low end of the scale.
When you compare salaries for skilled laborers — carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and auto mechanics — to the average college graduate, the numbers are a lot closer. In fact, many non-college educated technicians earn a lot more than some folks with college degrees.
A lot of college graduates opt for degrees in communications, history, and English literature, to name a few. These are legitimate courses of study, but they don’t necessarily come with the job guarantee that others enjoy. And the paychecks they command are often much lighter than a business or engineering major might expect.
At the same time, those college degrees come at a price… a high one, even those that don’t command the big bucks. Most of those college graduates will end up taking out loans to pay for college. And that debt will follow them for years, negating a lot of those higher salaries we keep hearing so much about.
That’s one of the great advantages of following a technical career path: No school debt… or at least very little, compared to what you’d accrue by attending a four-year, private college. Sure, it may require attending a tech school for six months or a year, but that’s going to cost a lot less than a college degree.
The bulk of a technical education occurs on the job, while you’re getting paid for working. And, even if you did incur some tech school debt, you should be able to pay that off before your fellow high-school graduates receive their college degrees.
Then, once those college students graduate, they still have to find jobs. Easy for some… but others will be searching for a while; maybe years. And those jobs may depend on economic factors that are out of their control; they could end up out of work when their company closes or moves… and then their job search begins again.
These days, skilled laborers are in demand everywhere. Businesses all across the country are frantically searching for skilled technicians, and they’re willing to pay top dollar for them.
Young people in tech schools often have jobs lined up and waiting for them, even before they graduate. A lot of them start working part time wile they’re still in school, already earning back what they spent to attend the school.
Of course, just because you have a job today, that doesn’t guarantee it’ll be there tomorrow. But that’s okay, too: If the company you’re working for goes out of business or you have a disagreement with the boss, there are a dozen other companies, just waiting to put you to work right away. A truly skilled laborer can count on never spending much time on unemployment.
And, if you’re unhappy where you are, you can usually find a new job quickly. As the saying goes, “that’s why they put wheels on toolboxes.”
That may sound good, but it’s just the beginning. Because those salary figures generally don’t include the side money that a lot of skilled laborers earn. A brake job at a shop today can cost $400… $600… or even more. Meanwhile, an auto technician can handle that brake job in maybe an hour on the driveway, and buy the pads for $40. It’s easy to make a few side dollars with margins like that.
And not just auto repair: Carpenters can install a new door or window, or put a deck at a neighbor’s house over the weekend, and earn as much or more than they do during the regular workweek. Same with electricians, plumbers, welders… any skill that the average consumer might need can turn into cash on the side.
Why don’t the government figures include that side money? Because it’s usually paid in cash, and, while people doing side work are supposed to declare it and pay taxes on it, not everyone does. And, since they aren’t paying tax on those jobs, it’s like adding another 30% to what they made.
Sure, it’s illegal, and it’s not something I’d recommend, but it happens. And it’s a big reason why the government salary projections may not be as accurate as you might hope.
Another advantage that skilled laborers have over the average college graduate is that they really don’t need as much money as other folks, because they can do so much for themselves. For example, most auto mechanics own slightly older cars that cost a lot less than new ones. They can afford to, because they can fix those cars themselves.
And not just cars: They’re also capable of handling home repairs that might terrify other people. Light switch went bad? They’ll replace it with a new one for a buck or two, while their college-graduate neighbor calls an electrician and pays more like $150. Same for a leaky pipe or a clogged drain.
Here’s a real-life example: The heater at a friend’s house stopped working. The problem? The igniter was burned out; a common condition on those heaters. But he was a technician and he knew the igniters are a common problem, so he kept a spare igniter on hand: one that he bought on line for $18. He had the heater working again in about a half hour.
When his neighbor had the same problem, he called a HVAC repair company. He waited six hours in the cold for the technician to show up, and then paid $265 for the same repair. $247 more! No wonder he needed the extra money he got from his college education!
Then again, even the most skilled technician can’t handle every repair. Sometimes you need to call an expert. That’s okay: Even if you can’t handle a repair yourself, you’ll understand what’s needed, so you can’t be oversold. Either way, having that technical knowledge, you can live just as well as your neighbors, but for a lot less.
Finally, there’s one more advantage to a technical career: It’s often a springboard into your own business. Most carpentry, plumbing, electrical, or auto repair company owners started as technicians. They worked their way up, developed the skills they needed, and built the foundation for a successful business. And from there, the sky’s the limit.
Of course, no one path is right for everyone. Maybe you would do better with a college education. There’s no doubt that a college degree can open a lot of doors that might be pretty sticky without it.
The thing to remember is that college isn’t the only answer. There are a lot of good-paying, lucrative careers to be had for a dedicated, skilled laborer. And those jobs come without the crippling debt that comes with many of today’s college degrees.
What’s more important than which path you take is that, whatever you choose to do, be excellent at it. And never stop learning: That combination will help make sure that you’re ready for whatever opportunities come your way.