A Career in the Trades Makes ‘Cents’

The American Dream has always been about the ability to achieve anything that you set your mind to. The equation for this has always been: more education equals higher economic potential. The only sure path to a long and successful employment career, therefore, is to earn a college degree after graduating from high school, right? That’s what we have always been told. But is it accurate?

While higher education opportunities are abundant for students today, the problem is once these opportunities are accessed the shackles of student debt will follow them and hinder them for decades.

The truth is that the burden of student debt is crippling this country’s college graduates.

The average college graduate now leaves school $33,000 in debt for their education.

The average cost of a college education in America is well over $100,000. While many families use large portions of their life savings to make a college degree a reality, 71 percent of our college graduates also graduate with significant student loans to pay off. In fact, the average college graduate now leaves school $33,000 in debt for their education. Americans now have more collective student debt ($1.2 trillion) than either credit card or auto loan debt.

Multiple reports point out that because of enormous student debt, millennials are now delaying investing in houses, not buying cars and putting off starting a family, all of which stands to devastate our consumer-driven economy. This is a major problem that affects us all.

You wind up disadvantaged just as you begin. It (student debt) has reduced the ability of our education system to be a force for upward mobility and for an equitable chance at upward mobility.

The realities of chasing that college degree as the long-proven conduit to future success are summed up well by Melinda Lewis, Associate Professor of the Practice at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare, when she said in 2015, “You wind up disadvantaged just as you begin. It (student debt) has reduced the ability of our education system to be a force for upward mobility and for an equitable chance at upward mobility.”

The case is very different for those seeking a career in the construction trades. Let’s compare, for example, the described plight of a college student grasping for that expensive corridor to the American Dream with that of a high school graduate entering the apprenticeship program at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

IBEW members complete five years of training that prepares them for a rewarding and well-compensated career.

IBEW members complete five years of training that prepares them for a rewarding and well-compensated career. When they graduate and enter the workforce full-time as some of the most skilled and best-trained electricians and technicians in the industry, they do so with zero debt. Zero.

In addition to their classroom learning, IBEW students work on construction projects throughout their training program, allowing them firsthand experience with what they are learning – and the ability to earn an income while they earn their free education. This combination of hands-on training with textbook theory provides the best possible education in any course of study and solid preparation for a lifelong skilled career. At the end of the program, IBEW students graduate and have immediate career opportunities with a direct pathway to the middle class, without a cent of the student debt carried by their college peers, with a four-year head start on earning and with their family savings intact.

So what about the loss of that upward mobility we are told only comes with that valuable college degree? After all, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average earnings of people with a bachelor’s degree is $55,000 per year, compared to just $34,000 per year for workers with only a high school education. While this disparity is real, and significant, it also represents all non-college-educated workers such as retail clerks, fast-food workers, entry-level service employees, etc. The BLS also reports that the average telecommunication installer, as one example of a skilled tradesman, earns just over $55,000 per year, or slightly more than the average college graduate.

IBEW students graduate and have immediate career opportunities with a direct pathway to the middle class, without a cent of the student debt carried by their college peers, with a four-year head start on earning and with their family savings intact.

According to Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the average electrician makes $5,000 more per year than the average college graduate. He also highlights the job security in this profession by articulating that America is always going to need a lot more skilled tradespeople. Carnevale points out that there are 600,000 jobs for electricians in the country today, and about half of those will open up over the next decade.

The fact is that the value of a college degree, with the crippling costs and decades of debt that come with it, has never been more in question. At the same time, an equally rewarding financial future as a skilled tradesman, at no cost, has never looked so appealing.