Of Mechanics and Railroad Engineers

Last week I contrasted the pay and futures of college graduates in the “skilled” majors (engineering, computer science) with those in the “unskilled” majors (history, women’s studies).  I ended with the statement:  “Now more than ever, we live in a world in which the highest paid people actually have to be able to do something.”

The next day I received a voice message from Kevin Ryan, a loyal reader and good friend.  Kevin has a bachelor’s degree, taught in the public schools for several years, and is now a master mechanic in a BMW garage.  He reminded me that my article omitted those in the trades like mechanics, electricians, plumbers, masons, web site developers, rail road engineers, commercial artists, phone application programmers, and computer repairmen.  “You don’t have to go to college to be well paid and highly skilled,” Kevin said.  How right he is!

The key to getting ahead is having a definable and marketable skill.  You don’t have to go to college to be one of the “skilled.”  In some professions, talent eclipses professional training.  A talented commercial artist or an ingenious phone application programmer need not have formal schooling.  In fact, those who get bachelor’s degrees in web site development or commercial art often find themselves four years behind talented high school graduates who already have a job.

Then there are the electricians, plumbers, and mechanics.  These professions require both formal schooling and on the job training.  The wages are good and the skills acquired are real.  Ironically, in most professions it is easier to become a skilled craftsman today than it was 40 years ago.  When I was a college kid working as a clerk for the Missouri Pacific Railroad in Omaha, a fellow had to serve for at least twenty years before he rose to the rank of engineer.  If you were 42 years old in those days and were a railroad engineer, you were “young” for an engineer.  Today a young person can graduate high school and become an engineer in five years!  If you can be a highly-paid, twenty-five year old railroad engineer, why don’t we have a rush of young people applying for those jobs?  Today’s younger generation doesn’t want to work the extra-board (variable shifts that make free time unpredictable).  Many of them can’t pass the “piss” test.  This leaves the field wide open for ambitious young, drug-free applicants.

While unskilled college graduates may look down their noses at skilled tradesmen, they soon find out that the young craftsman suffers less unemployment and earns a higher income than college graduates who are “glorified file clerks”.  Furthermore, you can’t “outsource” an electrician, a plumber, or a mechanic to China.  Sooner or later the college graduate will get a bill from his plumber, electrician, or mechanic.  At that time, our college graduate will discover the true price of skill.  He will also realize that he can’t do the job of an web developer or boiler repairman.  The sentence I used in the last blog bears repeating.  “Now more than ever, we live in a world in which the highest paid people actually have to be able to do something.”

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