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Why you should raise your kids to be plumbers

PLUMBER
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There's a serious shortage of skilled labor now and it's a threat to our kids' futures.

I’ve been telling my kids since they were old enough to know what college is that they will never, ever go there — not unless they get a full scholarship and manage to graduate with a degree in a lucrative field and zero student debt. Over my dead body will I see my children begin their adult lives saddled with enormous debt and facing dismal employment prospects, because that is no way to live your life. I know this first-hand.

I’ve often said that my goal is to raise a plumber, an electrician, a welder, a nurse, and a mechanic. Everyone laughs when I say this, responding with something like “then you’ll have all your bases covered!” And that’s true, but I’m not joking — and what will end up happening is that my kids will have all their bases covered. They’ll have steady employment in lucrative fields and be in possession of valuable, highly-prized skills — something most college graduates are sorely lacking.

In fact, the shortage of skilled workers is becoming so acute that the wages are spiking. Meanwhile the price of an undergraduate degree is likewise spiking, but the value of that degree is in rapid freefall. NPR recently reported on how the overemphasis on 4-year degrees is negatively impacting our economy and setting up young adults for failure:

While a shortage of workers is pushing wages higher in the skilled trades, the financial return from a bachelor’s degree is softening, even as the price — and the average debt into which it plunges students — keeps going up.

But high school graduates have been so effectively encouraged to get a bachelor’s that high-paid jobs requiring shorter and less expensive training are going unfilled. This affects those students and also poses a real threat to the economy.

“Parents want success for their kids,” said Mike Clifton, who teaches machining at the Lake Washington Institute of Technology, about 20 miles from Seattle. “They get stuck on [four-year bachelor’s degrees], and they’re not seeing the shortage there is in tradespeople until they hire a plumber and have to write a check.”

Sure, being a plumber isn’t as glamorous as entering the corporate world — but it’s likely to be more lucrative, less stressful, and far more rewarding. There’s something intrinsically valuable in fixing problems, and when the plumbing goes out, that’s a serious problem. A plumber can come in, fix that problem, collect a check the homeowner gratefully writes, and walk away knowing that they made someone’s life a little better that day.

Contrast that with a corporate sales job, where you spend most of your day cold-calling clients to sell them a product or service they may (or may not) need. Are you helping people and solving problems? Maybe, but chances are you’re still going to have to work hard to talk them into cutting that check. And it’s unlikely you’ll walk away from a successful sale feeling confident that you’ve helped someone, because even if your product or service does help them, you won’t be around to see it.

Add to that the fact that you’ll return home to a tiny apartment or, more likely, your childhood bedroom in your parent’s house because 80 percent of your paycheck will go to paying off your student loans for the next several years, and suddenly that corporate job doesn’t look so glamorous after all — especially if you factor in job security.

The truth is, a company can always find someone else to sell things. But a master plumber looking for an apprentice has a small pool of skilled workers to choose from — and that skill, like so many trades, is valuable. Our economy depends on the infrastructure that allows life to happen, and it’s the skilled workers who build and maintain that infrastructure.

So yeah, I hope my kids grow up to be plumbers. It might not be glamorous, but it’s one of the most valuable careers they could have.

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