This NPR piece, and other like it based on the arguments of economist Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University, have been making the rounds on my social media over the past few weeks. The NPR journalist, Chris Arnold, builds on Carnevale’s work to argue that millennials should pursue training in skilled trades like “pipe-fitters, nuclear power plant operators, carpenters, welders, utility workers,” because baby boomers are retiring and not enough workers are being trained to replace them.* College isn’t for everyone, the argument goes, and well-trained skilled tradesmen make good money, especially compared to workers with only a four-year college degree. As a society, we need to make training in the trades easier to get and remove social stigma from careers built on working with your hands.
In some ways, I’m incredibly sympathetic to and supportive of this argument. I have a secret second life as an amateur electrician, and I find the work enjoyable and deeply satisfying in a way that my day job isn’t. It forces me to think concretely and solve practical problems, and it rewards me with a material accomplishment at the end of the day that either works or doesn’t. It’s a different kind of pleasure from scholarship, which is slower, more contemplative, and ultimately more equivocal in its “success.” If someone choses to organize their life around that kind of challenge and that kind of pleasure, then that makes perfect sense to me.
But I can’t help noticing the fundamental, central irony of these studies, and these pieces of journalism: they’re all written by people who took advantage of a liberal arts college education to build a relatively well-supported and well-respected career sitting at a clean desk in a warm room moving words around on a screen. The whole thing strikes me as more than a little bit patronizing; do as I say, not as a I do. And I have a sneaky, not-entirely-fair, buzzing little suspicion in the back of my head that most of the academics and journalists pushing millennials into the skilled trades would be less than entirely enthusiastic if their own children decided to pursue a welding certification instead of a bachelor’s degree. To be clear: I have no problem with young people pursuing careers in the skilled trades, because I totally grok the pleasure and the satisfaction that comes from them. But I have a bit of a problem with older, comfortably-ensconsed, college-educated wordsmiths telling them that it’s their best bet.
* As a junior faculty member who has been told (ever since he began to contemplate a PhD in the Humanities and a career in the academy back in about 1998) that the retiring baby boomers were going to create a lot of job opportunities for my generation, I’m automatically skeptical of any job advice that is based on the baby boomers retiring. First, the baby boomers aren’t retiring, mostly because they can’t afford to. Second, they’re not being replaced, at least not in the same numbers, at least not in my field. So beware of any economist predicting anything based on the retirement of baby boomers. It’s most likely bullshit, or at least extremely optimistic.