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The views of this article are the perspective of the author and may not be reflective of Confessions of the Professions.
Apprenticeships, Trade Schools, And Military Training Can Be Great Alternatives In Today’s World
The price of four-year universities in the US, among other countries, is huge and growing. There are many situations where the degree is worth the cost, but not for everyone. Obviously if you wish to be a doctor or lawyer, a college degree is inevitable.
If, however, your desired path isn’t so rigidly grounded in universities, or you just aren’t sure what you’d like to do, take some time to think about alternatives before applying to colleges.
To high school juniors and seniors:
Your parents/guardians might be pressuring you to go straight to college because that was practically a guarantee for a good life in their time, but things are different today. If you’re going to broach this subject with them, get your sources ready ahead of time. Here is a good overview, but you should find other data, analyses, and opinions before fighting that battle.
Why are skilled trades more relevant now?
These jobs have been around for a long time, but baby boomers have been over-represented for decades. As that generation retires, demand for skilled trades will be a lot higher than it was twenty years ago. According to this article, 53% of skilled tradespeople are over the age of 45. Anecdotally, I work in an industrial setting with a lot of tradespeople, and almost all the hair here is grey.
Is there any money in it?
There definitely can be. Unlike some college-bound fields, you won’t likely be making six figures right out the gate, if ever. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be worse off. Assuming you go the apprenticeship or military routes, you can be making money the day you start, and won’t have any crippling debt to deal with. I’d recommend reading up on personal finance for more details on the matter, but if you start contributing to your retirement at 18, even with less income, you could certainly retire with more money than someone who had a higher income, but couldn’t contribute until [_ years to complete degree + _ years to pay off debt] later.
That’s assuming the college grad can get a job right away. There are plenty of highly educated baristas and retail workers in this country who may never be able to retire thanks to student loan debt. Moreover, one can’t get rid of student debt by filing bankruptcy. You’re stuck with any loans you take for school.
What are my options?
There are a ton of ways to start a career, but I’ll talk about a few.
Apprenticeships are a great way for experienced tradespeople to pass their hands-on knowledge to pupils that will some day replace them. Apprentices will generally be paid very little at first, but the cheap labor is in exchange for valuable training. Once an apprentice is proficient enough to work on their own, they will generally be making a nice, middle-class wage.
A recent report from NPR took a look at how apprenticeships play a part in Germany’s industrial success. The US government is also pretty aware of the potential, even if they face challenges in funding programs. The federal program is here and you can take advantage of some of their resources in person by finding the nearest American Job Center
The federal government is definitely the only organization pushing apprenticeships. In a lot of cases, labor unions organize and administer apprenticeships and training. One example would be the IBEW for electricians, but there are a too many unions that vary from place to place, so I won’t bother trying to list a bunch. Searching for unions near your area may be a good place to start identifying other opportunities.
Trade Schools can be a good way to get the kind of classroom training you might expect from college, but much more focused and time/cost-efficient. Many community colleges offer trade programs that lead to certifications and associate’s degrees. There are also standalone schools that might specialize in a single trade, like welding. Job Corps is a national program that can be a good option if a person isn’t in a good position to pay for training. It isn’t for everyone as I understand it is very structured and somewhat militaristic, but I know a few people who have completed training there and gone on to nice careers.
Training doesn’t have to be years long though, especially in the arena of computer sciences, “boot camp” programs are becoming very popular. A computer programming boot camp might be a big expense for such a short program, but its much less expensive than a degree in computer science, and could give you enough tools to land a good job right away or even to work for yourself.
Military training can also be a great economic ladder. The pay and benefits are good from the start. Depending on the specialty, the training can be really valuable (and free). Plenty of employers offer some hiring preference to veterans. There are some huge risks associated with this route though, so I would reserve it as a last resort.
Regarding benefits, the basic wage isn’t a lot higher than minimum wage, which is often the subject of salty memes. That is not the only income, though. In most cases, living expenses are taken care of, so no need to budget for food, housing, or utilities. That’s the bulk of what the working class is trying to stay on top of, so you could plausibly invest every dollar of pay you earn if you didn’t have a cell phone or car. Even then, if you are sensible, it would be easy to live below your means. Another huge benefit is free medical for the whole family. On the outside, that would cost a lot.
Regarding training, if you win the “job lottery” you could receive extensive training in a really valuable field. Some people can walk away from four years of service making over $100,000/yr. You could also be a bus driver. You don’t really get to choose, and that is the first big risk. I would say it is much better than a 50% chance that the job training you’d get in the military would be worth more than a high school diploma, but if you don’t want to be a cop, and they make you a cop, that is a lot of wasted time.
Regarding lifestyle, it can be a great time. I really enjoyed most of the time I spent in the military. There were a lot of people around me who absolutely hated it and had to suffer through a six-year-long mistake. The good stuff is, you’re part of a community, you might get travel a lot, you might have really exciting work to do. The bad stuff is, the culture can be very very toxic, you might have to be away from family for years, and being the military, there is an above average chance of being killed, injured, assaulted, or developing a mental illness.
I know that sounds dramatic, but a person shouldn’t consider it lightly. In reality though, chances are high that you could walk away with a pretty good financial start and good opportunities to have a satisfying career.
If you want to get smart, go to college. If you want a good job, and don’t want to become a slave to your own debt, consider a skilled trade.