You know, I’m a professor at four-year liberal arts college, and I think Mike Rowe is on to something here. The kind of education we deliver is not for every one.
Now, eight years later, unemployment is down, interest rates are under control, and inflation is in check. But the overall labor participation rate is very low, and the skills gap is wider than ever. In fact, the latest numbers are out, and they are astonishing. According to the Department of Labor, America now has 5.6 million job openings.
Forget your politics for a moment, and consider the enormity of what’s happening here. Millions of people who have stopped looking for work, are ignoring 5.6 million genuine opportunities. That’s not a polemic, or a judgment, or an opinion. It’s a fact. And so is this: most of those 5.6 million opportunities don’t require a diploma – they require require a skill.
Unfortunately, the skilled trades are no longer aspirational in these United States. In a society that’s convinced a four-year degree is the best path for the most people, a whole category of good jobs have been relegated to some sort of “vocational consolation prize.” Is it any wonder we have 1.3 trillion dollars in outstanding student loans? Is it really a surprise that vocational education has pretty much evaporated from high schools? Obviously, the number of available jobs and the number of unemployed people are not nearly as correlated as most people assume.
I’m no economist, but the skills gap doesn’t seem all that mysterious – it seems like a reflection of what we value. Five and half million unfilled jobs is clearly a terrible drag on the economy and a sad commentary of what many people consider to be a “good job,” but it also represents a tremendous opportunity for anyone willing to learn a trade and apply themselves.
One size does not fit all. A four year college, like the one I teach at, is a school for generalists: we give students breadth and depth and encourage intellectual exploration, and I think that’s a good thing — we need a solid core of people with a broad knowledge base to knit together all the different parts of a society. But we also need people who can do things. That requires a different kind of focus and discipline.
One problem is a disparity in prestige, though. My father was a mechanic, and I’m a college professor — why, I must be a great success compared to the old man. But I’ve never felt that way. My dad was skilled and very, very good at working with engines and all those other parts (what are they? I don’t know) of a car; when I have car problems, I take it to the dealership and open my checkbook wide. And I run into this attitude all the time that I’ve come up in the world compared to my father, and it’s nonsense. I get paid a bit more. I have to work less hard than he did. That is all.
The message I take away from that isn’t that I’m doing better, it’s that my father, and all the other blue-collar workers who have deep skills in keeping my world running smoothly, are undervalued. They should be paid more. They should be respected more.
I like what I do — it was the right choice for me — and I think small liberal arts colleges and big four-year state schools are important contributors to an ecosystem of education, but we punish ourselves if we don’t give the two-year colleges and the vocational schools and the high schools the worth they deserve. A nation of college professors would be a sad and impoverished thing.
And as long as we don’t value equally every learning endeavor of every kind, we’re going to continue to have the economic imbalance Rowe describes.
I also have to think that 4-year colleges would be in a better place with fewer students attending solely because they think it’s a strategy for making more money. They’re kind of missing the whole point of a broad-based education.