A while back I read an article that got me thinking. Apparently, less than half of two thousand high school students polled felt that a university education will secure them a good job. A few days earlier I’d talked to an entrepreneur who found two young electrical engineers – one with a masters degree and the other a PhD – who designed an electronic product for free for him. Lack of prospects meant that working on a “sweat equity” basis was worthwhile for these guys. The project has since gone belly-up.
I routinely hear about friends of my own kids who flutter from one post-secondary program to another, only to eventually “graduate”, ending up with the kind of subsistence job they could have easily landed with only a high school diploma. Am I the only one who sees this as a huge waste of time, talent and money? Am I the only one who thinks that many of these wandering, under-utilized young people could have made valuable contributions to the trades if only they’d been guided differently? The situation is nothing short of a disaster, and it’s been unfolding for a long time.
When I graduated from high school in 1981, I left with two things. I had the underlying sense that I wouldn’t be complete without a university degree. I also experienced a total lack of encouragement to pursue the life-long interest and aptitude I’d shown for building. Four years and $100K in tuition and lost wages later I had a degree and a profound understanding that my university career was the biggest waste of time and money in my life. I was 23 when I graduated and no better able to contribute to society than when I came out of high school. Lucky for me I’d taken pictures of the custom furniture I built to pay my way through university. While a degree failed to deliver meaningful employment, a couple dozen 4×6 colour glossies of my projects got me good jobs at any cabinet shop I wanted. Contrast my happenstance trade experience and self-directed training with the life of a guy who grew up on the other side of the world.
Roland is from Switzerland, and like most young Europeans he was encouraged to sample different careers in a hands-on way when he was 16. He ended up choosing carpentry after trying life as a butcher for a week and disliking it. Once he’d made his choice for carpentry he immediately moved into an apprenticeship with a paycheck. Roland has the kind of brain that the authorities in the country where I live – Canada – would have steered towards business or medicine or law. Never the trades. Instead, by the time Roland was 23, he’d been through one of the most thorough trade training programs on the planet. He had savings in his pocket (instead of student debt looming over his head), a real-world work ethic, stunning trade skills and the ability to support himself and a family. The fact that a 23 year old man has the skills to make a man’s contribution to society should not be a remarkable achievement. The tragedy is that this is noteworthy in the modern world these days.
There are so many people patting themselves on the back for the great post-secondary system we have in this country that I can’t imagine how any meaningful change can happen. All I wonder is how many intelligent, disillusioned burger flipping university grads could have been happily earning a good life in the trades if they’d started off as kids believing the fact that creating things with your hands, your mind and your heart is some of the greatest work on earth. Could it be that if this was the case you’d also have a much easier time finding someone to do that renovation job you’ve been dreaming of?