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Jonathan Potts

This is one of my pet issues, and I wrote about it occassionally while I was covering education at the Trib. Penn State has one of the nation's leading experts in vocational education, Ken Gray. He told me that over time, people with trade or technical degrees close the earnings gap with people who have bachelor's degrees. Elitism--not only by parents but also by high school guidance counselors, teachers and principals--causes smart kids to get pushed to college whether they like it or not, while discipline cases and kids with special needs get dumped into vo-techs. (I should add that my mother taught in a vocational high school for more than 20 years.)

This has ramifications for the broader economy. Pennsylvania, for example, is at a competitive disadvantage because of a lack of skilled labor. (Or at least it was six years ago when I was writing about this.) Unlike professional labor, skilled labor is not likely to relocate, and so it is a big factor in whether companies choose to set up shop.

sean mcdaniel

I know a high school kid who wants to be an automotive designer. He has all the grades he needs for the math and science requirements. The kid is smart and figured that he'd better be able to design cars if he knew what went on under the hood. So he enrolled in a mechanics class at the local vo-tech school, which his guidance counselor promptly nixed. The counselor thought the kid would be wasting his time with the washouts and the burnouts.

After much squabbling between the kid's parents and school administrators, he got his wishes.

As for the need for education, I agree that college is a good thing...to a point.

Sam, if you already have a bachelor's from Yale (i'm assuming this since one boss introduced you as her Yale guy) and that's not helping you earn some decent money, why pursue yet another degree (and in the same field that traditionally is low paying)? I could be wrong, but it sounds like the same case you like to point out about Pittsburgh trying to revitalize Downtown with the same old approaches that don't work? How many layers of subsidies do you try until you surrender and say that Downtown is as vital as it ever will be? And how many degrees does one accumulate before he or she realizes it doesn't make a difference? (you mentioned something earlier this week about the law of dimishing returns. that's what i mean here.)

If the additional education is for the sake of learning, fine. But if piling on the degrees is a way to reach a certain income level (that's never attained), then it's time to get out of the classroom.

As for skilled labor, it's like college, not everyone is suited for it. For the life of me, I can't nail two 2 x 4 together and make a 90 degree angle.

Now on the other hand, I'm from a little older generation than you or J. Potts. For us, the bachelor's was enough for a good many people to get the jobs they wanted (just as the WWII and Korean War vets could climb high up the corporate ladder with a 2-year associate's business degree). Unfortunately, today the bachelor's seems to have as much weight as a high school degree did 50 years ago. In another 20 years, the Ph.D. probably will be just a foot in the door.

As far as electricians and others being able to control their destiny, I guess it's true, to a point.I know a few skilled labor guys who don't practice their trades anymore because of the work has dried up since the 1980s. Sure, the guys with union seniority are doing fine. But talk to an independent contractor and you'll hears stories of constant hustling to get new jobs. Such is the freelance life.

Speaking of which. For about 20 years I worked for others until I was asked to "leave" my last position. Sure, it seemed devastating then. But now it was the best thing that ever happened. I'm not advocating the self-employed route for anyone (i had to scramble for a while to start making decent money). Before my last job I never considered self-employment at all. But as far as determining who you work for, how your time is spent and how much money you make, you do have a lot more control...and if there's no work to be done at any given time, then you can jump on your bike and ride (or whatever your pleasure). Really, I'm not bragging, but I work much less than I ever did at "real" jobs and make far more. Even better, happier with what I do. But as I said, this is the career path for everyone.

Working for others might guarantee some level of income (especially in union positions), but it doesn't give you all that much control (except in some union positions).

Maybe one solution is to expose all elementary and secondary students to aspects of skilled labor and professional labor, so that everyone has a balanced view of each type of work. Even more important, so that people don't look at skilled laborers as uneducated lugs (I'm not saying that you said this or that I believe this. But if you're an honest person, you know how many people feel about the "working man." They love him as the subject of a Bruce Springsteen song, but they really don't want him living next door on Ivy Street in Shadyside or the cul-de-sac in Cranberry). Not that the working guy (or woman) holds too high of an opinion about the professional guy (or woman).

John Morris

I guess I am going to change the subject a bit and also make a prediction.

First the prediction.

The degree fetish of today is largley a government induced/subsidised trend so built on my prediction that governments at all levels will be short of cash soon. I predict the rapid growth of the for profit, private education business and also the rise of the small urban college.

Second prediction

Based on my prior projection of a broke government, that would lead to to other trands. One the reimergence of urban living in response to high gas prices and a government unable to endlessly fix or expand the highway system.

The remergence of urban schools which are logically more cost efective since they can easily feed of of surounding ammenities instead of building everything from scratch. This should fit in with increasing doubts as to the value of isolated "ivory tower" degrees and an incresing respect for work experience and practical first hand knowledge. From what i can see, most for profit schools are small and non campus.

Sam M

Sean asks:

"Sam, if you already have a bachelor's from Yale (i'm assuming this since one boss introduced you as her Yale guy) and that's not helping you earn some decent money, why pursue yet another degree (and in the same field that traditionally is low paying)? I could be wrong, but it sounds like the same case you like to point out about Pittsburgh trying to revitalize Downtown with the same old approaches that don't work?"

I would agree with that one hundred percent if...

If I had made the decision to pursue an MFA based on the idea that the degree would be a good way to make a bunch of money. Or any money at all.

Ask around. Anyone dumb enough to consider the pursuit of an MFA to be a good finacial maneuver deserves exaclty what he/she gets. Which in most cases is a mountain of poverty, debt and despair. Unless, of course, that person writes fantasy. And lives in one.

I decided to do it for several reasons. One of them was not that my Yale degree had failed me. That degree, along with some if the things I had done with it, had actually landed me in a pretty high-paying job. Which I declined for a lot of reasons. But at the end of the day, ye olde college degree did provide me with what my mom said it would--a bit of freedom to make some choices. Again, some of these were rational from a financial perspective. Others, not so much.

Nope. I went the MFA route for several reasons: One was that last swing for the fences before it got too late. I can still try to churn out that best-seller, I think. But doing so requires time. And some freedom to move around a lot while scraping a living together. Which I am OK doing while the kids are still slobbering away in diapers. But once they are slobbering away in pre-school, I think I owe all concerned at least a modicum of stability.

So why not wait tables and write the book? Well, because it seems to me that the financial situation would be about the same. Except that at the end of three years the MFA route will arm me with the "terminal degree" in creative writing. (The irony of the phrase "terminal degree" not being lost on anyone in possession of one.)

This, I think, is part of the problem we call over credentializing and all that. But the fact of the matter is, many academic programs will not hire a person who has written 25 best-sellers unless that person comes with an MFA. In the same way that many RN teaching programs will not hire a nurse with 30 years of experience because she does not have a BSN. Nope. They would rather hire someone with 2 years experience and the degree.

So one can fight the system, accept it, or try to change it from within. I can see the upside and downside in all cases. But at the end of the day, I think I would like to support my writing with a regular paycheck. And teaching seems like a good way to do that.

Not a great way. Or even a good way, perhaps. But it's a way.

(I might add that the skilled professions are not strangers to credentializing. Guilds. Mercantile associations. Licensing. Unions. It's all wage protection of one sort or another. Barriers to entry and all that.)

That being said, I still wish I could change a damn spark plug.

As for the analogy to tried and failed strategies for downtown Pittsburgh: Again, I think that would apply were I to have said to my wife:

Listen, we're going to be RICH. RICH, I say. I will be a professor! A best-seller! We will live on the best side of town, the children will go to the best schools! I know, I know. I promised that my MFA in painting would do the trick. And that my MFA in sculpture would do the trick. Same as my MFA in woodworking, drama, pie making and ditch digging. But come on. Really. They did work in a way, right? I mean, imagine if I HADN'T gotten them. Who's to say things wouldn't be worse? So see, those were all real success stories! One family renaissance after another! I know it will be expensive. And I know the credit card people are after us, there is a hole in the roof, and they just shut off the gas and electric. But come on! Just one more time!

Sound familiar?

And if I were to have lived that life and said those things, I think the wife would have been justified in calling me a liar. And divorcing me for deriliction of my duties as a husband and father.

sean mcdaniel

I was just asking a question. I know far too many people who get that master's or Ph.D. because they think it will further their careers, and nothing changes. Then the get the bright idea that a master's in another specialty would make them more marketable. I'm sure you know at least a few people like that. (I know a guy with three master's degrees...and he's working on a fourth because the first three didn't land him the jobs he thought he deserved.)

I agree with the idea that if you're going to make as much as a grad student/teacher as you would waiting tables (but not running electrical wiring in a subsidized Downtown condo), then teach. I was just curious. That's all.

Sam M


It is a good question to ask. And one a lot of people end up wishing they had explored before they started pursuing their MFA.

John Morris

Sorry for snooping in on your conversation.

I was really an outsider, but I did end up reped by a big NY gallery. It was then that I turned around and saw that I was the only artist without an MFA.

While I am onboard with your smoking posts, I wish you did more on disecting the real rackets like this one.

Dwayne Afseth

Employeers want it. People will go into debt to get it....They have to have it nothing will suffice. Its a degree. It has become a really sick

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