“In times of crisis, great nations have always turned to folk heroes.” So writes Joe Queenan in the Oct 1, 2011 WSJ, then he waxes nostalgic over folk like Daniel Boone and Joan of Arc. Then he observes that America is in a time of crisis right now, but....well.....there just isn't much to choose from for folk heroes,is there? Oprah? Lady Gaga? Let's face it...the pool is not very deep. “Frankly, things being the way they are today,” he continues, “I'd settle for the guy in the Ford commercial.”
And why not? The guy in the Ford commercial is Mike Rowe. He is the host of Dirty Jobs, a Discovery Channel TV show inspired by his grandfather, who “could fix or build anything." Mr. Rowe testified before the U.S. Senate back in May of 2011, speaking in behalf of “dirty jobs.”
“We've elevated the importance of "higher education" to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled "alternative." Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as "vocational consolation prizes," best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of "shovel ready" jobs for a society that doesn't encourage people to pick up a shovel.”
In a country where newly graduated youngsters fret over unemployment, it's not happening for Mike Rowe's folk. He speaks of “450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The skills gap is real, and it's getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They're retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them. Alabama's not alone. A few months ago in Atlanta I ran into Tom Vilsack, our Secretary of Agriculture. Tom told me about a governor who was unable to move forward on the construction of a power plant. The reason was telling. It wasn't a lack of funds. It wasn't a lack of support. It was a lack of qualified welders.”
Contrast his words with the truly rotten mainstream counsel over the last two decades. “Go to college” is all anyone hears anywhere. That's the path to successful happy living. Only losers don't. Need to borrow money? Doesn't matter....do it! Need to borrow a lot of money? Look, don't argue....do it! You're investing in yourself!! You'll thank me for it someday.
But....we're seeing these reports everywhere these days.....new graduates are not thanking those that shoved them into college. Are they cursing them instead? Some are. They're graduating with tens of thousands of dollars of debt into a country with few job openings. Whereas those in skilled labor have openings galore, having trained for them much more economically, sometimes without any cost at all. Suzie Ormond interviewed one of these debt-laden graduates on her TV show. He'd borrowed to go through college, but upon graduation there were no jobs, so......"don't tell me,” Suzie says, “you went back to grad school.” Yes! He had! That's what society had told him to do! Invest more in himself! Upon hearing the total sum of debt, Suzie sent him off with advice to enjoy life best he could, much as you might advise someone with terminal cancer.
“Everybody told you,” says Anya Kamenetz on the PBS News Hour, “that BA degree recipients earn a million more over a lifetime than those people who merely have a high school diploma....so it's good debt, it's an investment in yourself.....that was the conventional wisdom for a really long time.” Averages, however, “are a funny thing, because they don't necessarily apply to anyone.”
The remarkable thing about student debt is that you cannot get out of it. Even through bankruptcy. Debt from virtually every other source can be discharged.....if you blew it on gambling, say, or drugs, or just living high......but not that incurred by listening to the education experts. It's incredible! Talk about a world that devours it's young! I thought you were supposed to look out for the younger generation. Wasn't it that way once?
Suddenly the JW organization does not look too bad for the advice they've long offered to their young people. When they weigh in on education at all, it is to defy “the conventional wisdom” and encourage youngsters to look at Mike Rowe's “apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities,” plus technical degrees, certificate courses, and so forth. Do not think it is easy to defy conventional wisdom....you should hear the flak they take for it!
But “Laurence Kotlikoff, professor of economics at Boston University agrees [with a recent Princeton University study] that an expensive education just isn't worth it..... “If you think of education as solely a monetary investment, if we are not thinking about all the other benefits from education like learning things, and getting to hang out with me, and also just becoming a more cultured person, then we have to look at this very carefully.”
Now, to be sure, the JW organization's reservations about college are not the same as Professor Kotlikoff's. That is, they're not primarily about dollars and cents. They're more about “getting to hang out with [him], and also just becoming a more cultured person.” Not he himself, of course....frankly, I'd like to hang out with him....but people he represents who dominate campus life, people who are inclined to think humans have the answers, people who are inclined to denigrate faith, people who are inclined to think the purpose of life is to consume, or even that there is no purpose in life. People who are inclined to overstress the value of being a “more cultured person,” whereas Paul would be apt to dismiss it all as “refuse” (Phil 3:8) and mention more than in passing that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” (1 Cor 3:19) So why “hang out” with guys like that unless it is truly necessary?
The May 2012 Consumer Reports tells of a web designer who likens his student debt, about $59,000, to “a prison sentence.” It interferes with his buying a home. It prevents him saving for retirement. (no one mentions raising a family) The debt, “just grew and grew and grew,” he says, “and I'm saddled with it unless I make twice as much as I'm making.” He earned his master's degree 18 years ago, when education was cheaper. He's not unhappy with his career choices....I don't want to suggest otherwise......but surely he must wonder sometimes whether it was worth it. He used the words “prison sentence,” not I. He's consigned to paying off debt for a long long time. His freedom of movement is curtailed, not augmented, as he doubtless thought would be the case. Moreover, I know of two young people making their living in web design without any college whatsoever.....they just dove into it as a lifelong interest. Surely it's in the interest of the education industry to suggest learning only takes place in college, an assertion Professor Kotlikoff seems to make. That doesn't mean it's so.
In contrast, Dave McClure, the old circuit overseer reflects on his life and where it has taken him. Some of his old school mates might consider him a failure, he says, but he's not sure why. He's been to more places than they have, done more things, met more people, certainly met with more variety in people. It's all in what you value.
“The skills gap is a reflection of what we value,” Mike Rowe told the Senate. “....In a hundred different ways, [such as the Milton Bradley game of Life, where you are severely penalized if you choose the “business” road over the “college” road] we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a "good job" into something that no longer looks like work. A few years from now, an hour with a good plumber, if you can find one, is going to cost more than an hour with a good psychiatrist. At which point we'll all be in need of both.”
Nobody's listening to Mike Rowe. Not many, at any rate. A high school's success is still measured by the percentage they send to college. Unless your grades are in the toilet, just try telling your guidance counselor that you plan to bypass college. Just try it, and see what happens. The promising careers in this country are seen to be in education and health care. (less so in education lately, where budget cutbacks are wreaking havoc) These are also the same two fields whose models are described as “unsustainable.” But it's still only losers that go Mike Rowe's way.