The Dangerous Trades

Volume VIII, #12

Few readers of the UV Letter live with danger on a daily basis. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve faced danger. Growing up in peaceable Canada, the only danger I can remember is one time when I forgot to don a jockstrap for a hockey game. (I played goalie.) I never heard a gunshot or saw a gun until college. There and then – New Haven, September 1990 – both occurred in quick succession. Also in college, there was the time we spent 30 minutes jumping up and down in our room, chanting in a sing-song way: “Who lives below me? Who lives below me?” We found out: a guy on the wrestling team.

When it comes to ensuring that young people get good jobs, the perception is very different for blue collar vocational or industrial trades like welder, pipefitter, and machine operator. While numerous studies demonstrate that trades provide greater economic security than many jobs designated for “college graduates,” few parents are excited about the prospect of their children making a living climbing roofs or handling live electrical wires.

But not only are trade jobs less dangerous than they used to be, they’re also higher profile than ever. In fact, every time media outlets focus on alternatives to college, they reflexively point here. Last week a PBS News Hour segment on “How nontraditional pathways can lead workers to good jobs” focused on construction and manufacturing jobs “associated with hard work and hard hats.” In April, an NPR piece that aired on All Things Considered, “High-Paying Trade Jobs Sit Empty, While High School Grads Line Up For University,” began with Garret Morgan, a college dropout who’s now an ironworker, “dressed in work boots, hard hats and Carhartt’s, clipped to safety harnesses with heavy wrenches hanging from their belts… [wrestling] 600-pound I-beams into place.” Garret and others comment on how they’ll make more money than their college friends. In March, a Wall Street Journal article on alternatives to college featured aluminum-products maker Novelis and its “school… to impart lessons pulled from the factory floor.”

So as we take stock of the many challenges facing our so-called healthy, full-employment workforce – declining labor market participation, wage stagnation, unfilled jobs, underemployment, lack of diversity – it’s important to recognize that we’re unlikely to find a cure in the trades. While the value in building and maintaining physical infrastructure can’t be overstated and trade jobs should be accorded much more respect, these sectors aren’t growing that fast. In terms of expected new good jobs (defined as median income > $50k) in the next decade, no trade cracks the top 10, which is dominated by IT and healthcare. Our Commander-in-Tweet, who seems to want America’s community colleges to refocus on trades, appears ignorant of this data, among many other things.

But that’s a distraction, not danger. The real danger in trades is not getting injured, but rather the prevailing view that they’re the only (and inexorable) alternative to degrees. The result is the reification of the stature of college degrees in the minds of 99% of parents. Reports like these simply reinforce the snob appeal of college. The steady drumbeat of reports on how your child can avoid college by entering a “dangerous trade” makes families more – not less – likely to take on a mountain of debt for college.


We live in a nation divided by educational status as much as income or wealth. At the top of the heap are America’s 200 or so selective colleges and universities. Then come the vast majority of four-year institutions. It’s a prestige defined by exclusion. If much of the value of selective universities comes from the signal of admission to these institutions, then, as Byron Auguste of Opportunity@Work says, “the bonfire of the dreams of rejected applicants is what’s lighting the signal.”

On any given Sunday, leaf through the New York Times wedding pages. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a couple who didn’t graduate from selective colleges, or even a couple whose parents didn’t graduate from selective colleges. Higher education, which was once America’s engine of socio-economic mobility has become its brake. (And the brake pad may be the New York Times wedding pages.)

Further down the totem pole are associate degrees from community colleges. Then, at the very bottom, are pathways to trades like certifications and apprenticeships. Very few parents are excited about investing in their kids’ education so they can pursue trades. The quest for educational status has even infected the trades. Matt Sigelman of Burning Glass once startled me with this original haiku:

Can't find good help
My kingdom for a welder
Must have college degree

Education status-seeking in America has morphed into a pernicious prejudice. It’s a prejudice that keeps us from allowing our own children to pursue trades. Even worse, it’s a prejudice that keeps opinion-shapers from seeing that there are now hundreds of alternative pathways to (safe, clean) digital jobs – many of which are jobs that college graduates want, and increasingly aren’t getting because they don’t have the requisite digital skills.

In my upcoming book, A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College, my colleague Cassidy Leventhal and I have compiled a directory of 250 faster + cheaper pathways to good digital jobs. They include bootcamps, income share programs, staffing and placement models, and apprenticeships into jobs in IT, business intelligence, healthcare, finance, and sales. We omit pathways to trades not because these aren’t worthy jobs, but because we’re on a mission to raise the profile of programs that remain as invisible as a college dropout in the New York Times wedding section. As far as college alternatives go, all the media wants to talk about is dangerous trades.

The continuing identification of alternatives to college with trades is a major impediment to breaking through our education prejudice and achieving broad middle + upper-middle class acceptance of these essential new pathways to good jobs. The faster + cheaper revolution that American higher education desperately needs starts when upwardly mobile families begin to feel confident that opting for an alternative to a four-year college won’t relegate their kids to trades. For the real danger to America is not the trades, but a workforce that is way out of position relative to employer needs, and the many economic, social, and political ramifications thereof.


Three articles that tell us where the puck is going in higher education

1. Not Your Father’s Job Market Washington Post column on how the Great Recession changed the job market for college grads, by Jeff Selingo. Students are [now] looking for jobs outside the industries normally associated with their majors. In health care, more than 20% of the open entry-level roles are aimed at graduates with technology skills… the key for students... is to get specific hard skills (such as computer coding or comfort with data) and learn how to translate the competencies they developed in the major, such as writing and critical thinking, so employers can better understand the background of applicants during the recruiting process. Read more 2. Children Are Too “Unemployed” NPR interview with Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of the new book, The Good News About Bad Behavior. “Children today are too ‘unemployed.’… They're not asked to do anything to contribute to a neighborhood or family or community… And that really erodes their sense of self-worth — just as it would with an adult being unemployed.… To be straight-A students and athletic superstars, gifted musicians and artists — which are all wonderful goals, but they are long-term and pretty narcissistic. They don't have that sense of contribution and belonging in a family the way that a simple household chore does.” Read more 3. How Medical Schools Are Reducing Student Debt U.S. News & World Report article on strategies being deployed by medical schools to help reduce graduates’ debt burden, currently averaging $170-180,000, by Farran Powell. Finding a solution for affordable medical education is needed, says Dr. David Lenihan, president and CEO of the Ponce Health Sciences University in Puerto Rico. "One of the problems we have in the U.S. for finding a solution is getting that debt under control, so the doctors that we graduate are willing to go to areas where there is need," he says… At Ponce School of Medicine, the full sticker price students pay is slightly more than $30,000 a year – roughly half the cost of most private medical schools. To curb costs without a large endowment, Lenihan says the school digitized its curriculum. For instance, some courses are prepackaged with video lectures with hourly paid local experts that handle the Q&A sessions on clinical cases. Read more