Another Path to the Middle Class


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College is not just an educational institution. It’s a definition of achievement. It is a proud moment when the first person in a family graduates from college. College separates statuses. It’s something you can rub in the Joneses’ faces, along with your stainless steel coffee mug and power tie. But is it the only way to success?

There is no questions that on average those who get a college education make more money over the course of a lifetime than those who don’t. [1]  There is a lot that gets lost in the averages. The person who gets a four-year degree and chooses to stay home with her kids, or the person who started out employed, then over the years advanced to the point that their employer helps them get their degree, show college is not a straight line to the top. There is also evidence to suggest that the bottom quarter of college graduates earn about as much as high school graduates. [2] 

The problem is that if we hold up a four-year degree as the ideal route, we are not giving everyone a fair shake. College can be too expensive for some, and not a good use of another person’s skills. Some say we are even facing a shortage in skilled trade workers as baby boomers retire. This may cause skilled trade salaries to rise. [3] 

But in America skilled trades are looked down upon as second best. [4] Who would choose to be a carpenter if they had the skills to be a lawyer (I can think of someone)? A person who knew that he loved working with his hands, took great pride in figuring out what customers wanted, and received joy from delivering the finished product to happy customers. There is an integral part of a human that yearns for physical work and takes great pride in finishing a  job, then coming home exhausted and dirty. [5]

It could be that we need to remember that a good days work in any profession is laudable, whether you come home fulfilled and dirty or content and clean. Many young people would find satisfying middle-class employment in trades like machining, plumbing, even hairdressing. The education for many of these trades is quick and inexpensive. Apprenticeships even offer the option of being paid during the training period and most lead to a job within the company offering the apprenticeship. The starting salary once hired can put a person directly into middle class status.  [6] Even for all the wonderful advantages Apprenticeships offer these jobs are not the ones being recommended by guidance counselors. [7]

Maybe we need to get over our caste system outlook on jobs and begin to put the well being and earning potential of young people above our status biases. Four-year colleges are not a land of opportunity for all. Not everyone will be happy as a doctor or lawyer, nor is everyone capable of that kind of discipline or financial outlay.  There is also a problem in the finality with which many people view the post high school decision. As if, once a person has committed to the skilled trade route they are committed for life. If you have started life with little debt, and have a job that pays a middle class wage you have much more flexibility to decide the next avenue to pursue.

Some countries, like Switzerland, find that many in their population choose the route of skilled trade jobs when that path is made easily accessible. According to a Time Magazine article titled “Who Needs College? The Swiss Opt for Vocational School”, the author , Helena Bachman says, “ About two-thirds of 15 and 16 year olds who finish nine years of obligatory schooling choose to continue their education through Vocational Education and Training (VET), a system that churns out skilled workers who are the backbone of the country’s thriving economy.” [8]

Mike Rowe has been an outspoken champion of college alternatives, and has explored many of the jobs available to those who choose to bypass college on his show, “Dirty Jobs”. He agrees that we need to overcome our superficial aversion to skilled trade jobs. “Compensation and benefits matter a great deal, but with respect to the technical trades, they aren’t the fundamental barrier to recruitment. The bigger problems are stigmas, stereotypes, and misperceptions.”[9] 

A person who specializes in the skilled trades may not make it into the top 1% of the population, but for most people middle class living is more than acceptable. Our emphasis should be far more on finding a career path that makes the most of each person’s strengths and acknowledges their means, rather than pushing a one-size-fits-all route on everyone.


  1. Desilver, Drew. “5 facts about today’s college graduates.” org. N.p., 30 May 2014. Web. 15 Feb. 2016. <;.
  2. Weissmann, Jordan. “When College Grads Earn Like High School Grads.” com. N.p., 8 Sept. 2014. Web. 15 Feb. 2016. <;.
  3. Wright, Joshua. “America’s Skilled Trades Dilemma: Shortages Loom As Most-In-Demand Group Of Workers Ages.” com. N.p., 7 Mar. 2013. Web. 15 Feb. 2016. <;.
  4. Anderberg, Jeremy. “Reviving Blue Collar Work: 4 Myths About the Skilled Trades.” com. N.p., 10 Nov. 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2016. <;.
  5. de Castella, Tom. “Is working with your hands better than just with your head?.” com. N.p., 4 Jan. 2011. Web. 17 Feb. 2016. <;.
  6. Reid, Dustin. “Why an apprenticeship may be a faster ticket to the American dream than a college degree.” org. N.p., June 2014. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. <;.
  7. Connell, Christopher. “Economic reality marries age-old idea — apprenticeships — with college.” com. N.p., Dec. 2012. Web. 17 Feb. 2016. <;.
  8. Bachmann, Helena. “Who Needs College? The Swiss Opt for Vocational School.” N.p., 12 Oct. 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. <;.
  9. [23] “Mike Rowe opens up on pay, public office and the ‘skills gap’.” com. N.p., 8 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 Feb. 2016. <;.




  1. What path did you choose after high school? Were you happy with the advice you received at the time? Were you happy with your options? What were your limits? Were you happy with your choice?
  2. What are the problems with the options kids have today? Should they be aware of options other than college? Should there be more options? Should college be more effective?
  3. What do you think about the disdain Americans seem to have for trades involving manual labor? How would you help people come to accept these trades as legitimate work options? On the other side of that coin would you prefer to work toward eliminating or minimizing these types of jobs in favor of more intellectually stimulating work?
  4. What do you think would help young people get to their desired path more quickly? Should college be paid for? Should more employers train their own new hires? Should there be better paths for skilled trades, or even those who choose art or music as a career?
  5. How do you feel about the income and support disparity? Should this affect the career options for young people? How would you even the playing field?
  6. What would a world where every student could follow his or her dream career look like? Is it just a Star Trek fantasy? What would need to happen so that money and family support didn’t need to determine a person’s life opportunities?


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