Education Opinion

Skilled Workers Beat Out Degree Holders for Jobs

By Walt Gardner — November 30, 2011 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In the debate over the value of a bachelor’s degree, the usual argument is that its holders earn on average about $1 million more over their lifetime than those with only a high school diploma. But like all generalizations, the truth is far more nuanced, as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal made clear on consecutive days. What they reported warrants further examination.

“Though it’s no guarantee, a B.A. or some kind of technical training is at least a prerequisite for a decent salary. It’s hard to see any great future for high-school dropouts or high-school graduates with no technical skills” (“The Dwindling Power of a College Degree, The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 27). But notice the words “with no technical skills.”

I stress this phrase because the assumption is that college graduates possess wherewithal lacking in high school graduates. But this is not necessarily the case. In fact, if vocational education in high school were given the respect it deserves, I believe that students enrolled in such programs would be in a far better position to get a well paying and satisfying job than college graduates who have majored in the liberal arts. Instead, the Obama administration persists in urging college for almost everyone. This strategy does a terrible disservice to the thousands of students who have no interest in pursuing a four-year college degree.

That’s because even though the unemployment rate currently is 9 percent there are many jobs for those who possess specialized skills. These include welders, machinists and drilling-rig workers (“Help Wanted: In Unexpected Twist, Some Skilled Jobs Go Begging,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 26). And let’s not forget plumbers, electricians and auto mechanics. None of these positions requires a bachelor’s degree, but they all require expertise that can be acquired through vocational courses in high school or in community college. Students who choose to follow either of these routes are virtually assured of a steady career that pays a traditional pension. Moreover, they are not saddled with the heavy debt that comes from earning a bachelor’s degree. Bill Frezza, a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, sees a “coming tsunami of student loan defaults” that will push the federal agency guaranteeing such loans into bankruptcy (“The Root Cause of Market Failure in Higher Education,” Real Clear Markets, Nov. 28).

We can argue all we want about the purpose of tertiary education. But conditions have dramatically changed. Up until the 1970s, less than 11 percent of the adult population graduated from college. Today, almost a third of the adult population in this country has a college degree, and an even higher percentage earned their degree from non-elite schools. As a result, a bachelor’s degree by itself no longer indicates intelligence and capability.

For those who are undecided about their future or want a broad background, there is nothing that compares with a liberal arts education. But remember that education is not the same as training. While they may overlap, they have different purposes. The former is concerned with concepts, while the latter is concerned with techniques. As long as the distinction is clearly understood, there will be far less disappointment among young people than there is now.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP