College is important… but so are trades

My wife and I built (well, okay, not literally) our house in which we’re currently living. While it was under construction, I went to visit the site roughly every other day. I wanted to check on progress and make sure there weren’t any issues. Besides that, I enjoyed watching the structure go up.

I remember at one point talking to one of the house builders. I commended him and his workers. I remember mentioning something about how fun the work looked, and how much I was learning by watching the process. I also recall thinking about how fun it could be to build houses for a living.

This morning, I stumbled across this article that talked about the stigma of choosing trade school over college. It made me think about current career mindsets, enough to the point where I felt compelled to write this article.

How many stories have you heard where a person went to work in a white-collar profession, decided that (s)he didn’t enjoy it, and changed careers? I’m a fan of Food Network shows such as Beat Bobby Flay, and I often hear stories from aspiring chefs who’ve said things like “I worked on Wall Street for years, didn’t like it, realized that my real passion was cooking, and became a chef.”

There are countless stories of people who were pushed (often by their parents) toward careers that they didn’t want. (Disclosure: I, myself, was one of them, but that story goes outside the scope of this one; that might be another story for another time, if I ever feel compelled to write it. All I’ll say for now is that I eventually made it work, and I’m much happier for having done so.)

We need doctors, engineers, writers, architects, and teachers. These are professionals that require college degrees. We also need framers, linespeople, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, food service workers, and construction workers. These professions might not require college degrees, but they are skilled workers, and they are just as important.

The German education system includes the Gymnasium, which is akin to our standard college preparatory high school. However, for people not looking to attend college, people have the option of attending a Hauptschule or a Realschule. High school programs in the US most often act as preparation for college, and those people who do so are perceived as being successful. Here in New York state, BOCES programs serve a similar purpose to hauptschules and realschules in that they provide education services, including vocational education, to students who struggle with the college prep route.

Just because people don’t pursue the traditional college route doesn’t make them unskilled. I’ve watched plumbers, electricians, and welders at work, and I can tell you that I couldn’t do a lot of what they do. I’m not saying that I’m not capable of it; I’m just saying that I don’t have the skill sets that they worked hard to have, just as much as I have the skill sets that I have.

Chris Bell, one of my friends on the SQL Saturday circuit, once gave me a great piece of advice. He told me, “the definition of an expert is someone who knows something that you don’t.” I’ve never forgotten that tidbit.

So why is there such a stigma attached to people who pursue the vo-tech route? I’m not an expert, but if I ventured a guess, I’d say that people tend to look down on those who aren’t as skilled in various aspects — people who tend to pursue vocational education. But maybe some people just don’t want to go the college route.

Not everyone is cut out for college. Maybe some people aren’t interested in pursuing a degree. Maybe some people feel their skills are better suited elsewhere. Maybe some people have a learning disability that prevents them from academic pursuits, but have other skills in which they can be employed. Whatever the reason, there should be no shame in pursuing vocational training. People should pursue careers that suit them — and if they’re happy in their chosen professions, then we’re all better off for it.

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