Aspire to a good education…which isn’t always a four-year degree

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.


  1. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    Although from reading various posts on the subject not everyone working in academia is well paid from what I gather adjuncts and other such casual teaching staff often get the short end of the stick.

    But yes, I do agree that a lot of practical work does tend to be undervalued.

  2. grendelsfather says

    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.

    It is not that people no longer consider skilled trades to be a good job, it is that with the callous and deliberate destruction of unions they are no longer the good jobs they once were. As an elite and effete college professor myself, I never really understood this until recently meeting a new friend. He has only high school diploma and had retired from a career at 3M about 10 years ago. His main house is nicer than mine, his lake house is nicer than most houses I have ever lived in, his hobbies are more expensive than mine, and he fully paid for both of his kids’ college education. I am not really jealous (a lake house would be nice, though), but I really doubt that it would be possible for someone with only a high school diploma to have a career like that these days.

  3. antigone10 says

    If you have a job opening you can’t fill, then you’re not paying enough for the job or your standard for the job is too damn high. I personally see this around here: my friend is a machinist and she’s damn good at her job. But they want people with certification, years of experience, and pay a starting wage of 13 dollars/ hour. Nope. You can make more as a receptionist, in an air conditioned office, with more respect and better hours.

    Isn’t that how the free market is supposed to work? Mike Rowe says that there aren’t enough people willing to do plumbing- a job he claims will never be outsourced*. Then they aren’t paying enough to overcome the cultural stigma of being a blue color worker and the fact that you have to deal with literal shit. And if I had to venture a guess, based on my friends who work as machinists, electricians, and landscapers, there is more than just a cultural stigma against blue collar workers. Those jobs still seem to have a pretty hefty stigma against women working in them, and are some of the most obnoxious work environments I have ever heard of.

    And while I’m going to have respect for anyone who works those jobs (I love our complex handyman, and appreciate how good he is at his job), I think the only way to get cultural respect for these jobs is to start being honest about what we value as a culture. We value money, we value power, and we value a fairly narrow form of education but not too much of it. And realistically, we are saying that it is okay for some us (namely me) to be white collar 4-year education people, but “others” are not well suited to that field. Okay. How are we supposed to figure that out, on a cultural level and an individual level.

    * Of course, this ignores that it might be tech-sourced, but sure.

  4. says

    My husband is an industrial mechanic, and while he has always enjoyed his job, and employment has never been a problem for him, given his wide skill set, grendelsfather @ 2 is right, the destruction of the unions is seeing everyone screwed over, and royally so these days.

  5. says


    Those jobs still seem to have a pretty hefty stigma against women working in them

    Lots of women in those jobs here in ND.

  6. komarov says

    Over the last few years – and perhaps longer – various engineering societies in the UK have been extolling the virtues of apprenticeships and similar schemes. According to them, key issues are again the prestige but also industry itself. Companys don’t want to train people, they want to use them and that is all. A common fear seems to be that a company spends money training people who’ll then just turn around and work for somebody else. Better to have someone else pay for the training and then get them to work for you. So industry support for these training schemes seems to have waned a bit.

    This also affects graduates to an extent, of course. Graduates have been taught lots of theory but get little opportunity to do stuff with it before getting a job. This bugs me personally because by now I’m sick of the theory and would like to get into the practical but, nope, no experience. Which may explain todays job adverts which, if taken literally, would like applicants to be recent graduates with anywhere from 5 to 32 years job experience. This wouldn’t be so bad if only playing with lego counted…

    But, according to Advanced Capitalist Theory, we only have to wait until the free market realises it is choking itself and starts investing in skills training again. And I kept a straight typing this. Well, almost.

  7. antigone10 says


    What is “lots”? What are the percentages? My machinist friend is a woman, my landscaper friend is a woman. My machinist works with 3 other women. My landscaper says she doesn’t know any other in the practical aspect, just reception and a handful in design. My electrician friend said that there wasn’t a single woman in his apprenticeship class, and one in the one in the class behind him.

    So, we have competing anecdata. This article from last year:

    says statistically women are way below in blue collar jobs. I couldn’t find ND in particular, but I know that the number of men vs. women working on oil rigs is heavily in favor of men.

  8. says

    It’s the same story as a decade ago, US hospitals raiding Canada for GPs. US medical schools preached “be a specialist and make money!” No one studied basic medical care, leaving a shortage of doctors where they are most and regularly needed.

    Cue the inevitable right wing claim that Rowe is “getting political” and “supporting the muslim” instead of admitting that he’s addressing a problem.

  9. marcoli says

    Absotively. I have several friends who are mechanics, carpenters, electricians, plumbers… I am in awe of their knowledge and skills, not only in their trades but in their all-around know-how about how to make stuff and to fix stuff. Meanwhile I teach several biology classes and i see quite a few students who want to be a doctor, or go to vet school or pharmacy school or whatever, and among them are good young people racking up loan debt but they are just not going to make it.

  10. Brother Ogvorbis, Fully Defenestrated Emperor of Steam, Fire and Absurdity says

    Not only has the right destroyed unions, but they have also been working hard to destroy education — especially the industrial arts.

    In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, most public schools had autoshop courses that were, usually, supported by local auto dealerships. The dealerships contributed cars and engines — not new, but recent enough to be germane to the educational process — and kids graduated with the skills to get a decent paying job, with the possibility of it becoming a career or their own business, in the automotive industry. Same for machine tools, carpentry, cabinet making, electrical, plumbing, construction etc.

    As schools lost funding (and isn’t it a neat coincidence that the GOP, the right, stopped supporting public education about the same time that teacher’s unions became damn near universal (how dare those teachers earn enough to live on their own!) and SCOTUS decided that the Constitution really did say that religious indoctrination had no place in public school), one of the areas that got cut — along with band, chorus, drama, and other non-sports extras — was the vocational technical programmes. In my county, they decided, in order to save money, that VoTech should be one center for all seven high schools. Which also meant that far fewer students could take advantage of the training. It saved money mostly because it served fewer students. The clerical courses — typing and shorthand — were still in the individual schools. And computers? There was a computer programming course but we had nothing regarding how to use them in any kind of business.

    In middle school, we had one year of shop classes — electrical, wood, plastic and metal (my mom still has the wrought iron scrolled candlestick I made in 7th grade). In high school, for the first few years, there was a very active shop — rebuilding cars (often the cars belonging to students), rebuilding tractors (supplied by local farmers and then sold to support the FFA) and a little bit of electrical, plumbing and wood shop. By my second sophomore year, almost all of that had been transferred to the new VoTech building up in near Hagerstown. And the students in vocationa technical education dropped by two thirds.

    Now, if a high school graduate wants to go into the vocational technical trades, they have a choice of a few national for-profit trade schools. Schools that have, as their primary objective, making money. Not educating students.

    So, to me, the lack of respect among some for the blue-collar trades, though a major part of the lack of vocational technical education, is only a part of it. A big chunk is also, “How do we make education profitable for the 1%? how do we eliminate union jobs? and how do we cut public spending so we can give illusory tax breaks to the middle class and real tax breaks to the rich?”

    When I was young, some of the brightest people I knew were auto mechanics (including one guy who could read a dozen languages (he like history but started to get peeved when he found the quotes had been sloppily translated from German (he was bi-lingual in English and German from his very religious family) and got to wondering what else was missed so he taught himself to read French, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Hugarian, and a few other languages so he could read the source material)), construction workers (including historic restoration), and plumbers. Same where I live now. But now they are all much older. Like retiring quickly.

    Meanwhile, my local mechanic has a real problem finding new workers who can be full mechanics immediately. And he is very reluctant to train new mechanics as, once they are certified, they tend to leave for the (somewhat) better pay (though still squat) of dealerships.

    Which may be a yet another reason for the decimation of VoTech classes in public school and the persistent denigration of any physical labour — to keep the salaries down so even more money goes to the one percent.

    Sorry for the Teal Deer. This shit pisses me off.

    Bring back high school VoTech. And make sure they teach useful skills. Of course that will screw over the for-profit tech schools. Which means it’ll never happen.

  11. says


    What is “lots”?

    The company my husband works at has over 30% women in their workforce, machining, welding, laser, robotics, paint line. Back in the day, before Ingersoll-Rand destroyed Clark, their percentage of women workers was higher. Jobs are hard to come by here, people do whatever they can.

  12. Knight in Sour Armor says

    We could really use more 4 year degree people going through these 2 year programs as well. At least with the welders I know, they’re very good at what they do, but they don’t really know anything or how to think about anything *besides* welding. That said, the skills required by the trades are not in anyway easy to acquire and we need those skills. Human beings are producing machine-quality work with just their hands…

  13. says


    Companys don’t want to train people, they want to use them and that is all. A common fear seems to be that a company spends money training people who’ll then just turn around and work for somebody else.

    It’s easier to keep trained people when they’re paid what they’re worth, the whole reason trained people leave to go somewhere else is they’re offered more money. This is one of the reasons unions have wage scales, it limits the return on poaching.

    The awful alternative is what companies like Jimmy Jon’s does, they make their employees sign multi-year non-compete contracts — if JJ teaches you how to make a sandwich, you’re forbidden from working for any other company that makes sandwiches for 2 years.

    As it is a lot of businesses don’t even need to bother with the pretext of paying people while training them — in my line of work people out of school pay the employers for the privilege of doing internships, under the guise of an educational program. (My union should probably get on that, but the union’s desperate just to keep the experienced people employed, and this happens a lot in the “Right-to-Work” jurisdictions where we can’t really control what happens.)

  14. says


    It’s easier to keep trained people when they’re paid what they’re worth, the whole reason trained people leave to go somewhere else is they’re offered more money.

    Which is a big problem when big companies don’t bother training people because they can simply offer more money than a small/medium company that invests in training. I told this before: The company my uncle works for opened a plant in the USA (car parts) because they thought it was more profitable than always shipping from Europe. They couldn’t get trained workers, so they trained them, figuring that hey, it was an investment that would pay off. Only that when those people finally had the skills General Motors simply offered more money. The company soon gave up and closed the plant again. Probably about 200 jobs that the USA didn’t get for lack of trained personekl.

    I know those complaints from Germany, where we have a good vocational training system which is mostly run by the companies. It’s part on the job training, it’s part school and it’s paid (though hardly a trainee can live off it). But the companies keep complaining because yeah, they don’t want to pay the trained personell. They want a 25 year old with 20 years of experience who’s being paid like a newspaper kid.
    Another frequent complaint is that the kids nowadays don’t learn nothing in school anymore and you can’t train them. What they’re missing is that the demands on students have increased dramatically. My dad in law is a plumber. He probably has legastenia, but that hadn’t been invented back then*, his maths is not outstanding, but 50 years ago that wasn’t that important, but being able to carry toilets up the stairs was. New things came with time and he could get used to them at his own speed. Today that job requires much more formal knowledge, environmental concerns etc.

    *may contain sarcasm. His 15 years younger brother was the first kid in the state to be officially diagnosed.

  15. says


    This is just hypothetical of course, but there are some solutions-

    1) They can put trained employees under non-compete contracts. I don’t approve of this but some people do it.
    2) They can offer trained employees long-term compensation that only vests with long-term employment — dot-coms do this by paying people with stock options, but it can also be structured as a pension, annuity, or some sort of employee mutual co-op. This is better (each of these options are in increasing order of desirability in my opinion).
    3) If the work is under a union jurisdiction, the company can negotiate a special contract for their employees that comps them in some way GM can’t. The union can even create a non-compete or create a lower scale for someone who’s working not with their training employer (this is basically the definitive difference between a “journeyman” and a “master.”)

    You’re right that the German system can’t just be airdropped into the American context and work — the German system is the product of about a hundred years of labor and socialist political agitation, and a thousand years of guild traditions before it. The German system only works because the companies, by law, have labor representation (through labor councils or “Betriebsräte”*) on their corporate boards and the “mittlestand” manufacturers are, for all intents and purposes, jointly-owned by the employees, so the existing employees have a stake in keeping the company together and profitable.

    Employee training in this way is inimical to American-style capitalism, where the owners are the sole beneficiary of the return and the employees are simply exploitable capital. It’s so alien to our way of working that Tennessee almost threw a Volkswagen factory out of their state, because the VW factory owners tried to unionize their workers, which is standard procedure in Germany, but a crime against nature in the US South.

    It’s clear to me though that employers should do a lot of education, and are the best people to do many kinds of vocational education. But we don’t do that, and to compensate we create a catastrophic adverse selection problem where everybody’s a hundred grand in debt for four years of college many don’t end up using.

  16. AlexanderZ says

    If there are 5.6m missing workers in specific fields, where is the wage inflation in those fields?
    I’m not one to say that the free market is perfect, far from it, but if you claim that there is a large shortage in certain commodity (like skilled workers) you’d better have a very very good reason for why the prices (in this case the wage) are so much at odds with the supposed demand.

    My money is on this being a bogus statistic. With US official unemployment at 5%, 5.6m vacancies mean that the actual unemployment figure should be closer to 2% – something that doesn’t exist in any large country. A more likely explanation is that these are cyclical, periodical vacancies or vacancies that represent underemployment.

    Either way, while I fully support PZ’s sentiment, I’m not all that keen on vocational schooling. In places where it is implemented it tends to create a stratified educational structure where students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are forced into a vocational school by default and are very unlikely to get an academic degree even if they are far more suited to that than most academic students.
    Again, this is not to say that the current US educational system isn’t broken. It is. I merely say that we should be more careful at identifying the problem (or whether the problem really exists), and cautious about the solutions we propose.

  17. says

    I would also just make the point that there’s a lot of bad things about the German system, namely, the educational system is “tracked” based on high-stakes testing. If you do bad on your exams when you’re 16, you’re probably going to get shunted into the “vocational track” and you’ll simply be denied access to university education, regardless of your ability to pay or any other merit.

  18. says


    Either way, while I fully support PZ’s sentiment, I’m not all that keen on vocational schooling.

    It might not be the best idea when vocational ed is split off from education in general, but I’m with what Ogvorbis wrote about @ 10. Here in the States, it used to be that vocational ed was a part of early schooling, and those who had a talent for certain types of work could not only discover that, but get a good start on learning, leading into a career.

  19. numerobis says

    Non-competes don’t work in many jurisdictions, except for senior management: the courts often find a person can’t sign away their right to work (no relation to union busting).

    In some contexts it works to say you owe your employer a year of work if they pay for your training, and if you quit early, you pay the tuition.

    The expensive part of on-the-job training for an employer is the time your employee is earnestly doing their best and it sucks, repeat for 6-12 months with it sucking less every time. Eventually their work becomes good. You’d better raise their compensation when that happens, in some way (not necessarily financial, but that helps).

  20. trollofreason says

    In the words of a woman smarter than I (my maternal grandma), “If they don’t pay me my time, they can go to hell.”

    A number of these “skilled” positions are in the modern day centers of industry, that being the right-to-work states. Wages in those areas are, of course, pretty crap, and the working conditions are usually below those that a student might find within their vocational training. Antigone10 makes a good point in that regard. Lots of Millenials (I hate that term) exit university with $80-100k+ in student debt. They’re also on average a sight more sensitive and just outright smarter than a lot who came before them, and more tech savvy as well. They might feel that they can’t waste their lives in a dead-end technical job, and make no mistake most “skilled” jobs are like that, they’re positions you’ll either do for 35 years like my dad, (and he did it happily) or they’re positions that you’ll be at until you’re laid off. Which is the primary reason I keep using “skilled” in irony quotes, because to call them “skilled” is a misnomer. Skill would imply a certain degree of indispensability, when in reality they’re technical jobs where job security and years of training and learning can mean nothing by a single investment by the boss-man in a newer, more versatile machine. A lot of Millenials prolly understand that, as do their hopeful employers/exploiters in the right-to-work states which is why the wages are so low.

  21. AstroLad says

    @16 AlexanderZ

    In high-tech fields the scam is to low-ball the wage and have ridiculous requirements –two PhD’s and 10 years experience in something that has only existed for five years for $40K (only slightly exaggerated). Then fill the position with someone on a H1B visa. That’s been going on for 40 years or so, at least as long as I’ve been around.

    According to a friend at work, my salary is in about the top 0.5% of my nominal job description for the area. Throw in the bonus and it’s more like 0.2%. I couldn’t even get an interview the way things work now. I wouldn’t get through HR’s automated filters. I do three or four things reasonably well, but in my opinion, not outstanding enough in any one of them.

    I’ve done pretty well, but inflation adjusted wages for general engineering has been flat, if not negative, for ~30 years. I don’t think it’s coincidental that this has followed the rise of grotesquely over paid executives. Any penny that goes to wages and benefits is a penny that can’t end up in the CEO’s pocket. I’ve seen claims in the trade papers that it’s getting better.

    That same friend’s father was an auto mechanic. But he, my friend, over pays for everything. Leaky faucet? Call a plumber. I’m not sure he could even find a spark plug. He has a B.S. in electrical engineering.

    Another friend’s son was in an auto repair work-study program sponsored by one of the top Japanese importers at a local college. He bailed because he would not give in to the pressure to sell unnecessary work.

  22. says

    I think the German system is terrible: I’m against vocational schooling in which people are restricted to a particular kind of schooling by their test scores. But somebody who takes up welding because they enjoy it? That ought to be respected.

  23. AlexanderZ says

    Caine #19

    Here in the States, it used to be that vocational ed was a part of early schooling, and those who had a talent for certain types of work could not only discover that, but get a good start on learning, leading into a career.

    As long as the vocational ed doesn’t impede the student from higher education I’m all for it. However, I’d like to insist that the numbers don’t really show a strong need for that kind of education, at least not on a nation-wide level.

  24. Terska says

    These kinds of jobs don’t really pay that well and it wasn’t that long ago that they were laying skilled workers off like mad. Construction workers went without work for a few years.

  25. AlexanderZ says

    AstroLad #22
    I agree that the current requirements for most jobs are outrageous and in no way relates to the actual requirements of the job. Which is exactly my point – if job providers can pose ridiculous requirements and still get all the workers they need at minimal or close to minimal wage it means there is a shortage of jobs and too many unemployed, not the other way around.

    Basically what Terska #25 said.

  26. komarov says

    Re: PZ Myers (#23):

    I think the German system is almost ok. Get rid of the restriction so people can go as far as they like in school and then pick vocational or higher education as they please. Bonus points for adding the vocational classes you apparently (used to) have in the US, making them available to everyone. They certainly sound like a wonderful idea.
    On the plus side, at least German tuition fees for higher education are manageable for – I think – most people. (Three figure sums per semester if I’m not mistaken) They’re nothing compared to those in the US and UK, where, a few years ago, it was decided to triple tuiton so the poor old government could save a few quid. Because where else are you going to save money if not education?*

    *I suspect we all know the answer to that one. Please don’t remind me.

  27. says

    @PZ Myers @23

    Obviously there are a lot of people who have jobs they don’t necessarily love or even really like, but are willing to do them in order to make their way, there are also a lot of people who pursue jobs they would love but don’t really have the gifts to make a living doing it. I would think part of Rowe’s point is that there are dirty jobs, and the dirtiness can’t necessarily be rationalized away through education or matching people up with what they love. Nobody loves cleaning sewers, but it must be done and it isn’t just a job for somebody’s idea of proletarians, it can require a lot of skill and responsibility.

    I think there’s a sort of bias in the American discourse generally, even from a progressive, that assumes that, if someone is a welder, or in some sort of menial trade, that amounts to some kind of punishment, or it’s a judgment that falls upon their character or intelligence: They were too lazy in school, or they’re stupid, and their “bad” job is a consequence. So the natural solution is basically a Barack Obama speech: “More education, more college, more opportunity,” because it’s not about putting the right people in the right jobs, or making sure everyone has a job and every job has a person doing it, it’s actually a moral fight for redemption, to “save” people from the “fate” of working at Taco Bell or driving a big rig.

    It just reeks of protestant work ethic, and carries through into every facet of our life. Even if you’re successful, it’s common to find people judged negatively if they merely decide to balance work with their family life, or if they stay with an employer they like instead of making more money for someone they don’t, or if they aren’t maximally materially exploitive in every economic interaction they have. If you aren’t a hedge fund billionaire, you’re a patsy, and you deserve to be used and exploited. There’s no dignity or respect in just doing a job, you gotta get rich too.

    So like, we find the German system offensive, because it seems to pass summary judgment on people, and that’s fair. But would we feel different if we didn’t live in a society where vocation is the be-all and end-all of a person’s identity? If it was just something people did to live and to help actualize their non-labor-related pursuits, like a family, or their community, or the million other things people do without getting paid for?

    And I’m not saying the German system does this either, our system is definitely better, it’s far more liberal; our systems aims to cultivate everyone as they are, and not just file them down until they fit into the labor market’s predefined square or round holes. And there are a lot of people who have made profound and irreplaceable contributions to our society without the benefit of good standardized test scores, people who, in other systems, are considered expendable.

    @Caine @18

    People are not numbers, and as people here have been nice enough to use your nym, return the courtesy.

    I don’t know, I think if you start thinking of other commenters as human beings, you might be tempted to think they’re persuadable, or worse, you might start judging yourself and the quality of your own argument by how others respond. “sigaba” and “Caine” are just as much human beings as Plato’s Socrates and Stephen Daedalus — they aren’t people, they’re realizations of how two certain people (or possibly more) want to present themselves. But I’ll do it if it makes it easier to follow the thread.

    This kind of detachment is required, I think: if someone calls you an ignoramus or an asshole at a party or at work, you’re going to take it to heart, but fuck all if you’re obliged to accept that kind of judgement from some anonymous twit (or his numerous sockpuppets) on the Internet of all places. (It’s a little different with our host, but he uses his real name and has a huge body of work under his acknowledged authorship.) I hope this response is acceptable.

  28. archangelospumoni says

    Retired union machinist here who majored in music in college. (In retirement, doing the music thing to my own great delight.)
    I have a great many acquaintances who “saved” maybe $75-$100/month in union dues at a cost of several hundred grand in wages, benefits, pension, medical, dental, and other benefits over their working lives. I retired early at 55 and my medical costs me $20/month for me and $20 for the wife. Same precise medical plan I had while still working.
    For the LIFE of me I still cannot fathom why my friends and acquaintances are still so blindly hateful toward unions. All I can do is be thankful to have had a nice middle class life and enough resources to enjoy the post-work part.
    Voters in Kansas vote against their own self-interest all the time as has been pointed out elsewhere but when you lay out the dues, wage, benefits, pension, safety, everything else and they STILL drool and spit over paying dues, I give up.

  29. says


    and the “mittlestand” manufacturers are, for all intents and purposes, jointly-owned by the employees,

    No, they’re not.

    The German stratified school system is horrible and unfair (and so are others, we’Re just more obviously horrible by already fixing future careers at age 10). But the German vocational system is pretty good. Though companies are trying to shirk their side more and more, claiming that trainees are too expensive, yadda yadda, when they begged that they could please keep the system after WWII when there were ideas to completely take it into public hands.

  30. says

    I grew up in “communist” Czechoslovakia and luckily the educational system here remained almost the same after the regime change.
    I actually think the system is pretty good and I was surprised at the German system (which I still do not comprehend fully) and the US system (ditto).
    Our system is really simple, and relatively fair – 9 years of basic all-round education. Then there are secondary schools which are either shorter vocational schools that learn a trade, longer all-round that prepare for university in general and specialised ones that prepare for university but with focus for a trade (like electrical engineering). But people from vocational schools can continue afterwards and still get the necessary grades for university, if they wish so and are capable.

    After that there are three types of higher education – specialized without degree, bachelor 3 years and master 5 years (or 2 after bachelo).

    And all of it is tuition free untill 26 years of age, plenty of time for anyone getting any degree they are capable of and they wish for.

    Of course there are still social and administrative barriers and the system is not perfect. It got slightly screwed after the re-introduction of eight year secondary school that separates the “smart kids” from future “plumbers” at the age of 10, but luckily this was the only step backwards, unfortunately with no end in sight.

    In my opinion separating kids at 10 years old and restricting their future career choices is too early. I met too many people who were smart at 10 years, but did not excell in secondary school and wth dificulty received only the useless all-round education because they were not cut-out for university. And too many people who were not that smart (or disciplined) at 10 years but caught up later and were actually better suited for the Uni then.

    So all-round equal education untill 14 years, allowing the kids to find out what they are good at and would like to do seems like a good thing to me. After that however, some degree of specialization is necessary, because many trades take years to master.

  31. garnetstar says

    Most of the undergrads who take my chemistry classes at a four-year state university do it to learn a skill–not chemisry, of course! But they need it for their particular skill of pharmacy or working in a lab-tech kind of job, or whatever it is that they like. I regret to say that they are not in it for a good, broad, liberal education as well.

    The kinds of things they want to work in really are more vocations, and I don’t think it’s at all necessary to go to an expensive university and get into debt to learn them. The community college model would work a lot better for them, I think.

    And really, if I were counseling a young person, I would say to not get into serious debt for education. It’s just not worth it. You can be trained in what you want to do, or do something like carpentry that isn’t as expensive, in so many other ways. Go to a community college or vocational school or take online courses, and if you work hard, you’ll get just as good an education in your vocation or skill.

    If you want a good, broad liberal arts education, don’t pay $60,000+/year for it. That’s what my own undergrad institution costs now, and it’s not worth it, I would not go there today, especially considering that the quality of the education I got was not that extraordinary. No school is worth that, and you can get just as good or better an education at a much better price.

  32. antigone10 says

    I think there’s a sort of bias in the American discourse generally, even from a progressive, that assumes that, if someone is a welder, or in some sort of menial trade, that amounts to some kind of punishment, or it’s a judgment that falls upon their character or intelligence: They were too lazy in school, or they’re stupid, and their “bad” job is a consequence. So the natural solution is basically a Barack Obama speech: “More education, more college, more opportunity,” because it’s not about putting the right people in the right jobs, or making sure everyone has a job and every job has a person doing it, it’s actually a moral fight for redemption, to “save” people from the “fate” of working at Taco Bell or driving a big rig.

    I think we are kind of dancing around a couple issues, though. Does someone have to drive that truck? Yes. Someone also needs to assemble that taco, clean out the toilet, and haul the trash. And I am sure that there are people who find a sense of pride in that work, and enjoy it. But speaking as someone who has assembled sandwiches, cleaned toilets, hauled trash and driven beets (among many other terrible-to-me, low-paying jobs) it was a slog to me (and the people I worked with). And I don’t imagine that I’m the only one who feels this way. And we can say we need to have a culture that respects this kind of labor, but then you have the labor staring you straight in the face. Would have helped to do those jobs if they had been more respected? Absolutely. It was hard to work at McDonalds, it was harder when you came home and your parents told you you better study hard if you didn’t want flip burgers for a living. It’s hard to work at Goodwill, but it’s harder still when you meet a college friend randomly and they go “I would never work for minimum wage, but then again I think my time is more valuable than that”.

    But even if those jobs had paid enough, and people didn’t treat me like I was not a worthy individual for doing necessary work, they still would have been hands-down the worst jobs I’ve ever done with the exception of childcare.* McDonalds is dangerous and boring and you are rushing around a lot AND you have to do customer service where you are expected to smile. Driving beets is basically putting your life on hold while you are in that narrow period of “the beets can be harvested” and “Too late, it’s frozen”. All of these jobs tended to be repetitive, boring, have inconsistent hours (and inconsistent need- construction is massively cyclical) smell bad, and be dirty. And there are people who think that’s fine. But enough to the number of jobs that need to be done? Anyway we slice it, we are going to have more jobs that people don’t really want to do than people who want to do them. So how do we divvy up who does what, and more importantly, how do we divvy it up in a way that is fair and just and not just classism? And even if the jobs are dirty, inconsistent and are boring, most of them still require a lot of knowledge that you can’t just get beamed into your head overnight AND tend to require special equipment that you don’t just play with. Do we bring back vocational training in school? Will vocational training be on the AP tracked students? We don’t want to take a 10, or 16 year old and say “This is what you’re life looks like” but at some point in modern society you need to specialize. The world doesn’t like bards.

    And how do we change minds about jobs being respectable anyway? Wonder Woman worked at Taco Bell, and treated it as equally important as saving the world but I don’t remember a bunch of people rushing to work at Taco Bell afterward. It would be nice if “You’ll end up flipping burgers at McDonalds” wasn’t a threat we aimed at people but McDonalds with billions of dollars couldn’t convince people “McJob” wasn’t a thing. So how do we change the culture?

    *We haven’t discussed pink collar jobs, and why they are considered less skilled than blue collar jobs, but that’s a story for another day.

  33. neverjaunty says

    Alexander Z @16: you’re absolutely right that ‘vocational’ and ‘college prep’ tracking have very much been a reflection of socioeconomic separation, but eliminating voc-ed doesn’t fix the problem. It just means that instead of being steered into auto shop or beautician classes, the poor kids drop out (or are pushed out).

  34. says


    You’re right, they don’t, I admit I’m letting my straw capitalist speak — “my union’s taken over my company!” :)

    @29 @archangelospumoni

    Most people’s interaction with private-sector unions is being told they can’t be hired for job X because it’s a union job, and nobody knows how to get into the union. This isn’t really unions’ fault though, Taft-Hartley has made it almost impossible for unions to organize new industries and shops, it’s given them perverse incentive to keep their membership small, and it’s tied their hands when it comes to political activism and giving their agreements teeth. When people encounter unions now I can totally understand why they’d be contemptuous — not only are unions insular and sclerotic, and not only are they bureaucratic, and not only do they make small employers miserable (mine sure does), but on top of all of these things they’re weak, and can hardly promise to deliver the things a prospective union member has a right to demand.

  35. moarscienceplz says

    Companys don’t want to train people, they want to use them and that is all.

    Here is a prime example. I am a Test Engineer for memory chips. I work with a test system that is basically a series of desktop computers connected to specialized tools to generate and measure voltages and currents and create special patterns to exercize the various functions the memory chips have. There are a small number of companies that make these kinds of testers, and the volume of them sold each year is fairly small. Any particular memory chip company tends to lock into the testers made by a particular company. Due to these facts, there has never been any attempt to standardize the software for these testers, each one uses some standard language such as C++, but then they add a huge amount of custom commands to control the tools part of the tester.
    A couple of years ago I got a call from a headhunter. She had a company with an opening for a memory chip Test Engineer. The catch was that it was for a tester that I had no experience on. However, I have been in this field for over 20 years, I have had to learn to work with a number of different testers over the years. I told this to the headhunter, and she said I sounded like a good candidate.
    A few days later, she called back and said I was rejected because of my lack of experience on their tester. Here’s the thing:
    That particular tester was less than a year old. NOBODY IN THE WORLD had experience on it, with the possible exception of the handful of people who had designed and built it. The only reasonable course for that company to take was to train somebody, but they refused to even consider that.

  36. neverjaunty says

    sigaba @35: What are you talking about? Unions have every interest in keeping their membership as large as possible – more members means more leverage, power and money. Taft-Hartley did not destroy union organizing. Reagan’s response to PATCO did that, as did the decades of hamstringing the NLRB that followed. As did ‘right to work’ laws, which create an utter disincentive for anyone to risk their employer’s ire by joining a union (since you can NOT join, and if some other poor fools create and join a union, why, you get all the benefits of the union anyway; why stick your neck out?).

    People have contempt for unions one, because we live in a culture that has contempt for blue-collar and service workers, and two, because there has been a massive PR campaign by wealthy assholes to push the belief that only factory workers ‘need’ unions and anyway unions are a ‘thing of the past’ because something something better workplace laws. That, and amplification of actual problems with unions (like the organized crime connections of the Teamsters, or the power of certain police unions) in the same way that ALEC throws around a single fraudulent lawsuit as proof that nobody should ever be allowed to sue a corporation.

  37. says


    Really? See I think the worst thing that ever happened to labor organizing was the banning of secondary actions. When the union is forbidden from organizing strikes up and down the chain of production, or workers are forbidden from striking in sympathy to other workers on the line with them, it makes strikes almost useless. They just become “shame” strikes, which are toothless.

    Taft-Hartley invented the concept of state “right-to-work” laws, it carved out an exception to the right to contract blatantly favoring employers, in states that chose to pass such laws. I will also go on the record as favoring the Closed Shop but I know that’s more contentious.

    PR is one thing, but the fundamental problem is unions have both their hands tied behind their back in labor actions and shop organizing, and the PR wouldn’t matter if unions could actually deliver. But they can’t, because Taft-Hartley cut off the unions’ legs and put them on life support. If you were in an industry that was organized before 1947, your union would survive, but only in the form that it existed in at the time; from then on the percentage of private sector union participation has only gone down. The decline didn’t start in the 80s, it was a trend well-established in the 1960s. Basically Taft-Hartly locked-in all the jurisdictions unions held at the end of World War II, and made it impossible for them to expand into new ones, and as the economy transitioned from manufacturing to service and technology, the union participation rate went down with it.

  38. says

    Also a side point: Obamacare has probably done as much to hurt labor organizing as Taft-Hartley did. Unions used to be able to at least say they’d get you a good health care plan, but if health care is affordable and universal that takes away something unions can offer — and now those of us with union healthcare plans now have the dread “Cadillac” plans, so our co-pays and COBRA are more expensive. I predict in the next 5-10 years my union will simply drop the health care part of our package, it’s gotten progressively more expensive to operate (even after recent drops in the aggregate costs) and it doesn’t give much benefit over the baseline scenario.

    And I’m for Obamacare, I rather we had it than we didn’t. But state healthcare and state services are usually the enemy of unions; free national healthcare is how Bismarck successfully boxed-in unions in the 1880s.

  39. Matrim says

    Yeah…if I’d gotten a 2-year nursing degree instead of pursuing my bachelors in random bullshit, I’d have been making 25-45 USD an hour for the last 4 years rather than making jack shit for much of it and working in a career field that’s quickly being destroyed by my Republican governor.