It is a well known fact that not all college graduates are able to find work in the field they studied. Many industries within today’s job market, such as finance and marketing, are overwhelmed with job seekers, with not enough positions to employ them all. Some college graduates end up taking trade jobs in other fields apart from that which they studied, but many take low-wage, part time jobs in order to earn an income while they continue to search for work in their field.
In a 2014 report for the New York Federal Reserve Bank titled, “Are Recent College Graduates Finding Good Jobs?” authors Jaison R. Abel, Richard Deitz, and Yaqin Su explore the rate of “underemployment” among college graduates. To examine this sample group of people, the authors write, “we construct two groups of non-college jobs: what we refer to as good non-college jobs and low-wage jobs. Good non-college jobs consist of those occupations—for example, electrician, dental hygienist, or mechanic—that paid an average wage of around $45,000 per year in 2012. While these jobs do not require a bachelor’s degree, they tend to be career oriented, relatively skilled, and fairly well compensated. At the other end of the spectrum, low-wage jobs paid an average wage below $25,000 per year in 2012, and include occupations such as bartender, food server, and cashier.” Since 2000, the number of college graduates in the “good non-college jobs” category has fallen sharply, while the number of college graduates working in the “low-wage part time jobs” category has increased significantly. This is problematic because more than likely, these graduates are facing staggering student debt in the wake of their studies, and part time, non-career oriented, low-wage work will not be substantial enough to begin paying off those loans.
Yet, a lack of these “good non-college jobs” examined in the study by the N.Y. Federal Reserve Bank is not the reason why college graduates take on low-wage jobs instead. In fact, there are vast numbers of these well-paid “blue collar” jobs that are hiring, it’s just that the positions are going unfilled. The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines Blue Collar and Service Occupations as those jobs that include, “precision production, craft, and repair occupations; machine operators and inspectors; transportation and moving occupations; handlers, equipment cleaners, helpers, and laborers; and service occupations.” In other words, blue collar workers can be considered as a class of laborers who earn wages and perform tasks usually associated with skilled trades and manual labor. While a certification or training course may be a necessity for many blue collar trades, an expensive 4-year liberal arts degree is not.
Last month on Marketplace, Kai Ryssdal interviewed Prashant Gopal on high-paying blue collar job positions that are going unfilled. Amidst a discussion on six-figure construction jobs at the company 84 Lumber, Ryssdal and Gopal touched on an important aspect of shifting social attitudes regarding blue collar jobs. Gopal says, “Everybody’s kind of pushing high school kids to go to college. I mean, the whole system used to be more of a track system until the early ’80s where you could work in what was called shop. You should learn about how to fix a car, or to be a plumber, or all those sorts of things, and that vanished. I mean, you have classes here or there, but it’s not really a program. So people come out of high school, most try college, half of them drop out. And they’re left with nothing to show for it but debt.”
Gopal articulates a valid reason as to why these “good non-college” or blue collar jobs are going unfilled. In general, the focus on early education in trade skills (high school courses like woodworking, home repairs/improvement, and shop) has tapered off. While many factors may attribute to the decline in shop classes and education in skilled trades, perhaps the one that is driving skilled labor education into extinction is that it is not a requirement to be admitted into college. For example, in “The Death Of Shop Class And America’s Skilled Workforce,” writer Tara Brown examines the dwindling number of shop classes in California. She points out that, “Shop classes are being eliminated from California schools due to the University of California/California State ‘a-g’ requirements.” These are essentially college prerequisites that high school students must complete before entering college, so that they can participate fully and have a shared curricular foundation with their classmates. While History/Social Science, English, Math, Laboratory Science, Foreign Language, and Visual and Performing Arts are among the California a-g requirements, Shop is not. Brown wrote, in 2012, that, “Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) with 660,000 students in K-12 has already eliminated 90% of shop classes.” While Brown’s focus was on one district in California, schools across the United States are also in the midst of eliminating their shop programs in order to place more emphasis on areas that are required for acceptance to college.
This trend in college preparation is a response to a shift in higher educational values. American academic institutions change their core focuses to mirror the structure and demands of the government, in order to churn out college graduates who are ready for work in today’s market. In an article for New Labor Forum, Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades write that, “U.S. public higher education assigns markets central social value. Public colleges and universities emphasize that they support corporate competitiveness through their major role in the global, knowledge-based economy. They stress their role in training advanced students for professional positions close to the technoscience core of knowledge economies, in fostering research that creates high-tech products and processes for corporations, and in preparing undergraduate and community college students to be malleable workers who will fit into (and be retrained for) new information-based jobs and workplaces.” U.S. academic institutions are moving to formalize education in all areas that could be considered college majors. Students can get a degree in anything ranging from the traditional majors like Finance, Math, or Literature, but they can also pursue formal study of more abstract topics ranging from fine arts to human rights to “Keepin’ it Real” or “Happiness Studies.”
Yet the government structure and university system are not entirely to blame for the avalanche of emphasis that is being placed on formal academic studies for college acceptance and the formalization of of areas that were not previously considered to be academic fields. Parents encourage their children to pursue college degrees and achieve higher levels of education, so that they can, theoretically, obtain higher-paying jobs. But the myth that a student’s level of education is always correlated to their income is deceiving. There are simply not enough positions in the job market to catch up with the exponentially increasing numbers of highly educated college graduates that complete their studies each year. Even with an expensive liberal arts degree in English Literature or Communications, there are very few options for a solid career that a student can build upon after they graduate. The temporary jobs that are available, such as a job as an independent contractor at a literary agency or an internship at an art gallery or nonprofit, will not be enough to pay off student debt or begin saving money for later in life. While these students may have once been able to turn to a career path involving trade skills they were exposed to in high school, a student who was never exposed to a shop, home improvement, or woodworking program may just find themselves stuck.
Both parents and early education institutions must rethink their hesitance to teach skilled trades to youth in America. The decline in the number of high school shop programs is troubling because it signals that there will be a lack of skilled workers to execute the jobs that make up the fabric of society. The number of unfilled jobs in skilled trades teaches us that we should never undervalue the importance of learning how things work and how to fix things from a young age. Blue collar jobs are essential to the nation’s industries, and there is a lot of money to be made in pursuing a career in one of the skilled trades. It’s time to stop thinking of blue collar labor as “underemployment” for college graduates, or as “lesser” employment for non-college graduates.