There was a time when this country was dotted with family businesses, and the objective was to pass the torch of that family business from generation to generation. Parents would send their children off to school to earn a high school diploma (to ensure their children were well-rounded members of society) and welcome them back to the family craft. Some kids would haul off to serve their country, some would move on and work in another specialty field. But by-and-large, this country was woven together with mom and pop stores that held towns together for generations.
There were fathers who passed on their craft to sons. Mothers to daughters. But at some point we decided as a country that it wasn’t good enough to be a seamstress or a plumber. Our parents would come home from their blue-collar jobs tired and grumpy only to turn on the evening news and see Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt rolling around in money.How’d they do it? Sitting behind a computer screen? We’d look at Mom and Dad, then glance about our sufficient but unimpressive home, and decide that there was no reason to break our backs bent underneath broken down cars when we could head off to college and seek our fortune in the world of technology.
So people went off to school and got that degree and, wow, some of them really did get rich. It seemed so easy. We now believed there was a formula for success; a road map to the gold rush of the new millennium. Our motivations changed. The American Dream shifted from health, a solid 9-5, and food on the table to gobs of money and a hybrid car. And now if you don’t have these things you aren’t really successful. You may feel happy, but without the outward symbols of prosperity it doesn’t matter.
Parents started pushing their kids to go to College. Don’t be like me, they’d say. Get out there and get your piece of the pie. Sending kids to school became the thing to do. College turned into something that was absolutely necessary to reach this new level of what we decided was success. If you didn’t get a college education you’d be left behind.
The unexpected result has been a shortage of the skilled tradesmen and tradeswomen. Welders, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, etc are now in high demand. We stigmatized these professions by assigning them the name “blue-collar” which eventually translated into “middle-class”. And the middle-class isn’t rich. It’s the computer scientists, investment bankers, and stock brokers that get wealthy. They are achieving what society has determined to be the new American Dream: Wealth. There was a time when the American Dream was a healthy family, a solid 9-5 and three meals a day. Now you aren’t a success if you don’t have two luxury cars, a 4000 square foot house, and a vacation home in the Hamptons. And let’s face it, you aren’t going to get that rich being an electrician.
I’m not convinced the issue lies in making college accessible for a select few as much as it is that we need to reconnect with our roots as a country that can produce with our hands and grit. Technology is a very necessary entity, but it is useless if we must rely on other countries to literally construct the physical framework of our nation. We need to make the trade arts accepted again. Take a look at the agriculture industry, for instance. Farmers have been forced to turn to illegal labor to work the fields because there aren’t Americans to do those jobs. If America participates in a mass deportation the price of crops could skyrocket. Same with the construction industry. Foremen are being forced to hire foreign workers to weld, plumb, and wire new buildings because this country has effectively stopped training those kinds of workers. Everybody’s in college.
A large part of the problem is that we have created a society in which everybody feels like they can go to college and achieve when this simply isn’t the case. College requires a certain kind of thinker. Someone who is a strong reader who can analyze problems and patiently comb his way through an issue. Some people possess those qualities, others do not. But we have become so afraid to categorize people that we refuse to tell the people who aren’t really college material that they aren’t really college material. So we find them ways into post-secondary education and they come out the other side with the diploma of an accountant but with the same mechanic’s mind they started with. So instead of winding up with a mechanic who was born to be a mechanic we wind up with another mediocre accountant. Often the accountant finds himself in over his head in his new profession, leaves it, and has to start all over.
Getting a college education is exciting but it’s far from necessary. Skilled craftsmen are in high demand and if the current trend continues the price of labor in the United State is going to continue to increase. Not everyone is cut out for college and we need to stop being afraid to say so.