Paths to the Middle Class

Multiple Paths to Career Satisfaction and the Middle Class

We have all been flooded with commentary claiming a four year degree is a minimum requirement for career success and a middle class living.  I’ve been bothered by these assumptions every time I try to hire a plumber or get my central air conditioning repaired.  I’m more bothered when I see the hourly rate for labor in the auto shop running at $70-90/hour.  My painting contractor in metro NY pays his experienced painters $30/hour.  That’s a gross salary of $60,000 a year, and a lower middle class wage in most regions,  without any college debt.  The Washington Times, March 27, 2012 ran this:  The mechanics tasked with maintaining the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s chronically broken escalators start at $81,000 a year. Bus driver pay goes as high as $114,000 for anyone with a driver’s license and a GED. (Read more: ) while lamenting that finding employees is increasingly difficult.  The average 2013 salaries for BA grads ranged from $37,000 in the humanities to nearly $60,000 in computer sciences.

No Need for College for All

Despite the propaganda about a college education being needed for a decent job, most of the jobs in the world and in America do not need a four year degree.  But Americans seem to have devalued any job not requireing a college eduction.  I’ve no idea where that fiction first arose:  I suspect part of it comes from the inability of college grads to find decent jobs, thus pushing them into jobs for which there are overqualified.  Employers have the luxury of being able to pick from hundreds of applicants who have given up on finding decent jobs and are willing to work for low or minimum wages, thus making a college degree a prerequisite for many jobs that simply don’t require one.  And there’s another threat to college degrees: Business writing, legal work, tax preparation, and other types of professional work is being contracted out online to the lowest bidder, turning this kind of skilled work into little more than piece-work.  And just as the third world has taken over the call center industry, today they are taking over legal work, auditing, software development, and any other ‘professional’ work that can be done in an office using technology, connected through the Internet.  As more and more legal work is outsourced, the value of a law school education for someone who won’t be a trial lawyer in a US court will soon be significantly undermined.  What can’t be done in India or China is repairing your transmission or unplugging a blocked sewer line.  Many of these kinds of jobs will be increasingly valuable and marketable as well-educated professionals willing to work for less than US minimum wage are a mouse-click away.

There’s A Better Way

Robert Reich writes about this in “College Is a Waste for Millions of Kids: There’s a Better Way.” Mid-way through his commentary, he says “America isn’t educating the technicians we need. As our aspirations increasingly focus on four-year college degrees, we’ve allowed vocational and technical education to be downgraded and denigrated.”  He goes on to highlight the business and industry connections in Germany that provide career technical education to students as alternatives to university education.  Germany, with higher wages in industry that we have in America, remains an industrial powerhouse that exports finished manufactured goods all over the world.  Perhaps the strong, well-trained skilled tradesmen and women that come out of such programs fuel German industrial might, and perhaps this is a pathway that America, in it’s lust for lower wages, should be more willing to explore.  In a few enlightened districts around the country business have teamed up with high schools to produce programs like this, but it happens far less than it should.

Shop Class as Soulcraft

Matthen B. Crawford wrote a bestseller in 2009 entitled Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inqquiry into the Value of Work. I first heard about this book from Deborah Meier as we talked about the push toward college for all and the destruction of career and technical education programs in America.  Crawford is a Ph.D in political philosophy who, from time to time, earned his living as an electrician and who owns Shockoe Moto, a Virginia motor cycle repair shop that specialized in renovating vintage motor cycles.  I was drawn to the book as I remembered Robert Pirsigs’s 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a signal work on values from my early years as a progressive teacher.

Crawford illumines, through examples of the challenges of wiring a house or rebuilding an old motorcycle, the level of problem solving, deep critical thinking, organizational skills, and creativity involved in building, fabricating, repairing, and maintaining things with one’s own hands.  These skills are the goals of the Common Core Standards, learned through life’s lessons and learned on the job from skilled mentors.  He writes like the philosopher/mechanic that he is–quoting ancient and modern philosophers, poets, sociological researchers, economists, educators, ethicists, and many others as he develops his thesis–American has devalued manual labor while at the same time turning knowledge work into repetitive drudgery in which workers can’t be objectively held accountable and their work can’t be individually recognized–hence soulless, unrewarding, and empty.

This book should be a must-read for school boards and politician everywhere, starting with Arne Duncan and all his minions in the US DOE and every state department of education in the nation.  Get it, read it, share it with educational decision-makers everywhere.


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