How Trade School Can Help Solve the U.S. Income Gap

Construction worker with saw

The American dream: you grow up. Get a college education. Land a good job and then buy a house and start a family, and you and yours are set for life. It’s a nice story — but if the Great Recession of 2008 taught us anything, it’s that, all too often, stories are just that: stories.

For many, that story may not even begin with a college degree, no matter what mom, dad, or teacher might say. Still, the new millennium is not a friendly time for trade schools in the US, either. For too many prospective students and their families, the nearly five decades old stigma against trade schools persists. The only “real way” to get an education, the story goes, is to pursue a four-year college degree. The only true path to the American dream, the powers-that-be tell us, is through the university door.

But, and perhaps not surprisingly, that myth may be far from reality. In fact, there are countless rewarding, stable, and very well-paying jobs out there in America that don’t require a bachelor’s degree— many do not require any college at all. So why is there such a stigma against trade schools, and why it is necessary to change it?

One Size Does Not Fit All

When it comes to education and the work life that presumably comes after, the one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t work — and that is a good thing. Not every student was cut out for four years of academic study, followed by four decades or more in an office, a clinic, or a courtroom. Without the people who are skilled with their hands who are more interested in doing something than just studying about it, those who are creative or mechanical, life as we know it would come to a screeching halt.

We desperately need skilled tradesmen and women to keep our society running, to create and maintain the infrastructure and protect the very systems that make other professions possible. Without these tradespeople, college grads would have nowhere to work, nothing to work with, and nothing to work for. Want proof? Consider the trucking industry: the US is currently facing a severe shortage of skilled truck drivers, and if something isn’t done soon to meet the need, the US economy could take a substantial hit. Without enough skilled truck drivers, food, goods, medicines, and commercial supplies will be slower and more costly to transport, dragging the economy down and making life overall a lot less safe, productive, and comfortable.

Minding the Gap

One of the most important reasons so many families and educators push their children to pursue four-year degrees is because, yes, studies do show that a significant average lifetime income gap does exist between college grads and non-college grads. In addition, if you are entering the workforce as a high school student or recent graduate, the sad fact is you may well face some challenges relating to your age and relative lack of experience. That will take strength, time, and effort to overcome.

But none of this means that there are not immense opportunities to secure a well-paying, secure, and fulfilling job, even straight out of high school. The US Postal Service, for example, offers a number of entry-level positions that are well-paying and offer significant opportunities for training and advancement. Or maybe you’ve thought about a job in healthcare, but the idea of committing yourself to another four, six, or ten years (maybe more!) stuck in a classroom just doesn’t appeal. The good news is that exciting opportunities in the healthcare field for those without a college degree are increasing by the day. The reality is that the trades are in desperate need of skilled workers and are willing to pay for them, while, as the Great Recession proved to us, a college degree does not automatically make you immune to job loss or financial hardship.

College of Hard Knocks

The fact is, even beyond the much-publicized burden of student debt that so many college graduates are faced with, there are other significant challenges in the professional world that the myth of the American dream doesn’t account for. For instance, highly skilled and educated women in the tech industry continue to face massive gender discrimination, including disparities in pay and job promotion. However, the challenges aren’t just confined to the tech industry or to female college graduates. A recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that over 50% of college graduates are employed in jobs for which only a high school degree is required.

The Takeaway

College is not for everyone, but that does not mean that you have to resign yourself to a life of unstable and low-paying work. You can still have a rewarding, respectable, and lucrative career in the trades. In fact, for many, trade school may well be the ticket to the middle class. All it takes is a little perseverance and a willingness to chart your own path to success!

United States of America