I Can Make More Money Fixing Toilets?!

As colleges and universities churn out the next generation of workers, students are graduating with soaring amounts debt in the form of college loans. Debts are ballooning so much that the media is foretelling an economic collapse much like the recent mortgage crisis (which is so dire that it made international news).

Is it no wonder then that this new generation is scrambling for high-paying entry-level jobs in the technology and finance sectors? How else are they supposed to get out from under the mounds of debt?

For example, here is the story of Kristin Cole, interviewed for an article which appeared on Ohio.com:

Kristin Cole, 30, who graduated from Michigan State University’s law school and lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., owes $150,000 in private and government-backed student loans. Her monthly payment of $660, which consumes a quarter of her take-home pay, is scheduled to jump to $800 in a year or so, confronting her with stark financial choices.


”I could never buy a house. I can’t travel; I can’t do anything,” she said. ”I feel like a prisoner.”


A legal aid worker, Cole said she might need to get a job at a law firm, ”doing something that I’m not real dedicated to, just for the sake of being able to live.”

Is graduating $150,000 in debt a good way to start out in life? Are there really no other alternatives?

According to your local trade union, there are several.

Not one, but two articles ran in the Seattle PI last week calling attention to the looming shortage of qualified trade workers and examines the reasons why young people seem to be ignoring careers in trades like plumbing, electrical wiring, HVAC and more.

A tarnished image of a fat, unintelligent oaf with a visible “plumbers crack” may be to blame. But also may our nation’s strict academic achievement requirements that are focused on meeting college admissions requirements.

From the Seattle PI on 3/23/2008:

Some educators think schools are at least partly to blame for the diminishing interest young people have in the trades. They complain that WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) scores have taken top priority over elective classes — music and art along with the trades — and students don’t get to see their career options in the same way they used to.

“We live in tech-central,” said Cal Pygott, who leads Bothell High School’s construction program. “Every parent thinks their student needs to go to a four-year school. But not every student needs to, wants to, or has the grades or ability to go to a four-year school.”

While I don’t put all the blame on our public schools, I do believe that focus is being taken away from training students for careers and put on preparing students for college-level coursework. Although sadly, our schools seem to be failing at that as well.

While so-called blue collar work may seem unappealing at first glance, a look at the numbers show a giant missed opportunity in terms of steady, high-paying work.

This graph was pulled from the 3/23/08 article in the Seattle PI:

Trade Wages in WA State

As you can see, in WA State, the lowest starting wage is $25/hour. That comes out to $48,000 a year before taxes. Not to shabby for having only a high school diploma. And those wages come debt free, unlike for those who choose to go to college for four years.

If I were given the opportunity to do it all again, I might have paid more attention to the trades as a viable option. Although women, especially women of color, still hold a small minority in trade positions—but that’s another post altogether.

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9 responses »

  1. The trades are also a place where hard work and productivity are rewarded. There are also great opportunities to move into management positions for the hardworking and organized tradesman.

    The politics of the workplace are not tolerated in an environment where the profit margin is very small.

    The wages in the graph seem a little scewed, but I am sure the cost of living in Seattle is out of whack. Other things that determine these wages are whether or not there are established local unions(who also collect a portion of the wages you have listed above) and the number of projects in the community.

  2. Thanks for the insight, morethananelectrician. And you’re right about the wage scale. I think I should mention that WA State has the highest minimum wage in the nation (currently $8.04/hr) and that the graph above lists only “non-residential jobs” such as commercial or government work which I’m told pays higher than more common residential work.

    But the starting wages are still very high. College-educated receptionists make substantially less than that and most likely have student loans to pay off as well.

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  7. Interesting. A couple variables to consider: One of course is location. The same work availability and pay scale isn’t common everywhere, as I’m sure you know.

    Another thing to think about is planning for the future. You really don’t want to head into your 60’s still pulling wire or working with pipe. What that means is that you need to work for a big company with room for advancement into management type positions that don’t require as much physical involvement as you get older. Either that or work on starting your own outfit so that others do the work while you run the company.

    I also wonder whether any of the wages you quote have to go towards Union dues or healthcare.

    Then there’s the sort of self-fulfilling cycle created by the lack of interest in the trades. If very few professional and motivated people go into the trades, the result is that you will be working with a lot of un-motivated people. There can be some negative effects on workplace environment.

    Ah well, there’s no such thing as a simple career decision is there?

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  9. My uncle got very wealthy in Silicon Valley, despite being violently anti-technology. How did he do it? He was one of the few plumbing contractors in San Jose before the big housing and commercial building boom.

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