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A Better Trade?

Kristine Hayes  |  February 8, 2019

FOR MORE THAN 20 years, I’ve been the biology department manager at a small, liberal arts college located in the Pacific Northwest. My job is unique because I interact, on a daily basis, not only with students, staff and faculty at the college, but also with various building maintenance personnel, sales reps and instrument-repair folks who are critical to the successful operation of the department.

For me, it’s an interesting study in contrast.

I see students in their 20s taking on debt to fund their education. Once they graduate, some have difficulty landing jobs in their field of study. Those who find meaningful employment may struggle for several years as they manage their debt payments, alongside various other financial obligations.

I also meet blue-collar workers, many in their 50s and 60s. Most don’t have any formal education beyond high school and they face a completely different struggle. They’re discovering it’s nearly impossible to find members of the younger generation who possess the skills necessary to replace them once they retire.

For years, economists have been talking about a skills gap that exists in the current job market. Many of the articles blame a lack of relevant training on college campuses. Economists have found technology is changing at such a rapid pace that it’s nearly impossible to keep students up-to-date as they make their way through school. Indeed, major tech companies, such as Google and Apple, no longer require new hires to have a bachelor’s degree. Instead, many of these companies are increasingly relying on new hires who received their education at coding boot camps or through vocational classes.

General laborers are also facing their own skills gap. The lack of skilled blue-collar workers is often attributed to the fact that, for the past few decades, a college education has been touted as the only real path to a successful career. Meanwhile, millions of trade jobs, many of which pay well above minimum wage, are left unfilled. Younger workers aren’t flocking to high-paying construction and equipment-repair jobs. Result: The cost of getting this type of work done is on the rise.

From my own vantage point, I see the results of both skills gaps. Tuition rates at colleges continue to increase each year, with the average tuition and fees at a four-year private college currently averaging about $32,000 per year. The amount of debt students accrue during their college careers directly impacts their life for years to come.

Meanwhile, the cost of having equipment repaired, and having building maintenance performed, also continues to spiral upward. I recently needed to hire an instrument repairman to come to the college to fix a broken piece of equipment. Because there wasn’t anyone in my immediate area who possessed the necessary skills, I had to pay for someone to travel three hours to our location. The travel time was billed at $249 per hour, while the actual labor for the repair cost $349 an hour.

An obvious question: Will today’s young adults start weighing the cost of a college education against the handsome incomes available from some trade jobs—and decide four costly years at college aren’t a good investment?

Kristine Hayes’s previous articles for HumbleDollar include a series of blogs about her  2018 home purchase: Heading Home (I), (II), (III), (IV) and (V). Kristine enjoys competitive pistol shooting and hanging out with her husband and her two corgis.

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