Dirty Jobs Shouldn't Be A Dirty Word

I had the pleasure of watching Mike Rowe’s "Distinguished Gentleman's Award" acceptance speech. I had no idea there was so much more to the Dirty Jobs TV host. He is extremely well-spoken, sure to please literary professors with his references to Don Quixote and Sisyphus. As a communication professor, his seemingly impromptu speech was very well done, filled with ethos, pathos, and logos, but threaded through by a lovely ribbon of mythos. That said, I am not entirely sure how my fellow academics might respond to the message?  It was a message of paradigm pushing.  It was a message that strongly urged us to rethink higher education as the “best” or even “only” route while also considering what "good" or even "admirable" work might be…

In full transparency, I agree with Mr. Rowe's message. I say that as much from more than 20 years of experience in working with college students as from the copious research and study I have tried to perform around 'student success.' Without likely knowing the reference, Mr. Rowe expressed the thoughts of Todd Rose from Harvard beautifully.

Rose (“The End of Average,” 2016) clearly and logically proves that averaging variable rich things like people, intellect, or acumen is not only a waste of time, but detrimental to society.  I was reminded of that again this week when our daughter's dentist explained some strange, white lines in her teeth.  The culprit?  Too much fluoride.  When municipalities put fluoride in the water, they base it on how much fluoride the "average" person needs.  In doing so, there is too little for a some of the population and way too much for a lot of the population (especially kids).  As an average, the math works, if you ignore ergodic theory which tells us you should only average things that are the same and will always remain the same...

Rowe channels this thinking very practically by pointing out that there are currently 7 million jobs available for which we cannot find workers and (importantly) that 75% of those jobs do not take a college degree. Most likely is that those jobs go unfilled because we have convinced students there is always a better route: College.

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that there are just some people who are not really college ready. Might they become college ready at some point? Absolutely. But there is a recipe of motivation, academic preparedness, funding support, and time that really must all be present to bake the higher education cake. Yet, as we now see trillions of dollars in student loan debt, much of which will never be paid off and much of which was spent on degrees that never came to fruition, why is it that we beat the drum telling everyone that college is always the best way. (In fact it seems like "common wisdom" to state college should really be the only way.)  I worked at a University where a significant sector of students were graduating at a 22% rate...

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Look, I know the statistics. College degreed employees make more money in almost every phase of life. They are also more likely to be employed at any given time. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports persons with a four-year college degree earn a median weekly salary of $1,137, whereas employees with only a high school degree average $678. (These numbers are also misleading, lumping "high school jobs" like line workers at a fast food chain in with being a journeyman electrician or plumber. It also does not consider hundreds of thousands of college credentialed workers in non-degree jobs who make minimum wage, but who are also not qualified for much higher paying jobs in other fields, instead with generic, difficult-to-align-to-career degrees.) But while salary is almost always the argument for higher education, is it the only picture we should paint?

Again, I believe in sincerely and passionately education. I would not do what I do if that were not the case. I believe that education is a way for us to curtail racism, protect the environment, create better informed consumers, and likely help people make better relationships. But should all education look the same?

Have you ever played Life – the board game? In that game, if you choose the employment option rather than the college option from the start, what happens? You start making more money immediately. So, while college students are not making money (typically losing a lot of money during those years, not to mention seeing those stronger paychecks diminished for decade(s) after), non-degree seekers are generating income. According to my home state’s CollegeInColorado.org, the average student leaves college with about $25,000 in student loan debt. (Other sources report that number as high as $40,000.)  The monthly payment on a $25,000 student loan is approximately $280 (assuming 6.8% interest and a 10-year repayment plan), which effectively means it will take more than a decade for the college student to overtake the non-college student’s gross.

But again, is that all there is to a satisfying life experience? Money? To say so would be myopic and naive.  Don’t we all have grandparents or parents who drew deep satisfaction from work that didn’t demand a degree? Additionally, don’t we all know people who really don’t care where they work, so long as it provides them the support they need for health resources or time with family or time to pursue a hobby or something else? I graduated from high school with a girl who goes to Alaska every year to work for 4 months in the seafood canning industry. She makes enough money to then come home and work with an organization that helps the homeless for the other 8 months of the year.  She has done this for 20 years. I know several entrepreneurs without any degree who make a lot more than I do. I know people who work to support their disc golf “habit” and others who work just enough to RV around the country. I know 3 struggling musicians and 2 struggling actors who only work until their big break.  I also know a lot of moms who work part-time because raising their kids is the single most important thing in their lives, period. Not to mention those who find the military or the Peace Corps or religious missions a fantastic transition between high school and life.

Then, there is the paradigm I have personally worked toward throughout my career. Most people now fully embrace the notion that individuals can return to higher education if and when they are ready. There are more options than ever, with online, hybrid, and even MOOC programs out there. Perhaps they didn’t have one ingredient before, but now they find themselves motivated or financially stable or whatever else makes a credential possible. Just like it seems fair to say that not everyone is “ready” to win the lottery (just look at the number of lottery winners who end up declaring bankruptcy), aren’t we doing our culture and society a disservice by saying everyone should attend college immediately after graduation?

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My daughter is 11. She has all the dreams of an 11-year-old, saying one day she would like to be a veterinarian and another day that she wants to be a photographer. But the thing that she comes back to repeatedly is fashion. From designing clothes for pets, to helping the poor become better dressed so as to find work, to designing high-end gowns and dresses, she continually comes back to fashion as a potential career path. 

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The ironic thing about fashion, especially as we sit on the cusp of 3-D printers that will soon be able to generate clothing, at scale for small business owners, is that fashionistas may or may not need college to pursue fashion. Sure, there are institutes of fashion that might help someone get a leg up and there may be some financial classes any small-business owner should take, but a 4-year-degree is not necessarily the best path to success in that industry. It could be, but there are as many stories in that sector that do not include college as those that do. So, my wife and I are always trying to help our daughter be nimble, agile, and flexible. We want the choices she makes to set her up for tangible success as much as future, potential success.

I’ve blogged before about our desired path for her which starts with a Community College for all her general education at a hugely discounted rate, followed by articulating into a 4-year to finish out. But note that path also gives her a natural stopping point at year two if she wants it. Or, maybe no college will be in the cards as she finds apprenticeship training or some other kind of technical school, leading to work she is passionate about which also provides her satisfaction in life. 

I hope you will take 25 minutes to watch Mr. Rowe’s speech. He does a very nice job describing why this issue is important, how it should not be inappropriately politicized (even though it is), how we need a collective campaign around it, and why foundations like the one he has established should spring up. But to educators, here is my challenge. Coming out of K-12, let’s consider the paths and really help students find the best way for their context, rather than pushing everyone into the same thing, even if they go kicking and screaming. After all, we struggle to help the ones succeed who actually want to be there. Let’s look at how we better acclimate students into higher education, really working on remediation and readiness. Then, let’s align higher education much more with the workforce, allowing our institutions to become true partners for everything from training to re-credentialing. If we set higher education up right, then anyone can weave in and out of micro and macro credentials at any point in their lives. Lifelong learning becomes legitimate and we might even see people start to take classes “just for fun” like happened in the 60’s and 70’s. Our students would likely be more amenable to learning. And work would see more satisfaction associated with it, while not having to be viewed as a one-way, dead-end, or dirty.


Good luck and good learning.