We had a young couple from our church over for dinner a few years ago. They had two young children and rented a house in town. Their dream was to own a country property like ours… to raise their family on a farm and live close to the land. This family was one of several who have sat in our living room and shared the same dream. Unfortunately, they are saddled with debt from their college years and can’t afford a house or farm.
“I wish somebody would have told us,” the wife said. “We would have done things differently.” She was dutifully following the advice she was given. But it was the wrong advice.
Not long after this conversation their landlord moved and sold the house they were renting. They were forced to move to an apartment where they reside still while they focus on paying off student loans.
I think of this family often because their situation was representative of many, many conversations we have had with other families about college and debt.
Since publishing Durable Trades, I have received more such feedback:
These young people were following the “rules”: study hard, get good grades, get a college degree so you can find a high-paying job, then you will be happy. The jobs were not waiting for them when they graduated, but crippling debt was.
Nobody told them there was another way. Well, I am a nobody. So let me tell you: there is another way.
It’s Not About Money
Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook)—none of these guys graduated from college. You don’t need college to make a lot of money. But that’s not the point.
The myth of success is pernicious. It says that the key to happiness is maximizing income. Therefore, whatever leads to more money will bring long life and lasting happiness.
The Bible says that happiness is not a result of success (or failure), but trusting in God for our provision. If trusting in money is your problem, more of it will not bring happiness.
The truly adventurous, meaningful, and fulfilling life does not require large sums of cash. It does, however, require freedom. It’s hard to live free when you’re chained to a desk for 40 hours a week.
For some, college doesn’t expand their horizons; it limits them. The option to buy a home, choose lower-paying, but more fulfilling work, or stay at home with young children are no longer questions that can be considered. Those doors are closed. The debts must be paid.
The tradesmen I interviewed for my book came from all different backgrounds. Some were college educated, others were not. Some had been director-level executives before leaving the corporate life behind to pursue a family business.
Many of them—midwives, carpenters, painters, brewers, and others—earned more than I did as a computer programmer. But more importantly, they worked with their families and enjoyed a higher degree of freedom than their office-bound counterparts.
The Robotic Revolution
In my book, I spend a good deal of time discussing the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Some revolutions are visible only in hindsight. People in the 1790’s didn’t know they were in a revolution; they thought the revolution was over. Today, people don’t realize we are in the midst of another revolution. This revolution will displace 800 million workers within the next decade, including one-third of the American workforce.1 Doctors, lawyers, and IT Professionals are just a few of the hundreds of professions that will be impacted.
Meanwhile, over the same period, jobs in the building trades are projected to increase faster than jobs in every other sector in America—faster even than health care and technology.2
A college degree will not guarantee job stability as it did in former days. It will not protect you from being replaced by an algorithm. All of the manual, repetitive, easy-to-automate jobs have already been automated. It is the highly-paid white collar jobs that are the primary targets now.
It’s About Education
College is not about money, it’s not about job security, and it’s not about social experiences. Nobody would borrow $100,000 for a grand social experience and say it was worth it.
College is about education. That was the original idea. And after the debt-laden hypestorm has blown over, that will remain the idea.
College is one of many options to consider for those seeking professions requiring extended periods of training or accreditation before commencing work in that field. It used to be restricted to those fields that actually required such rigor.
It is misleading at best (and thievery at worst) for colleges to entice young people with useless degrees for which there are no decent job prospects and leverage their futures to do so. And do not assume that government bailouts will solve this problem—it will only make it worse, and pass the buck on to our children.
There are many careers, however, that do not require formal higher education, wherein you can actually get paid to learn as you apprentice with a master.
Start ‘Em Young
I was recently asked: “What can be done to help the next generation into considering alternatives rather than following the college debt route?”
I answered that learning is for life. Education doesn’t begin with kindergarten or end with college. And it depends on parents being primarily in charge of their children’s education, regardless of who is teaching them.
Children should learn to work from the earliest possible age. They should not be entertained for eighteen years and then expected to pick up a work ethic and rewarding career upon graduation. Parents need to introduce their kids to as many different skills as possible, as young as possible: growing food, raising animals, building shelter—these are skills that all humans have shared in every century except our own. These are skills that will never become obsolete. Junk the video games, if necessary, and get outside.
Only after establishing a broad base of work experiences should parents, with God’s help, begin to zero-in on specific careers for their children. And yes, parents should do this. Guidance counselors and aptitude tests were not part of God’s original design for parenting. Mom, Dad, you are the ones God has chosen to guide your children into a meaningful and rewarding future.
Don’t leave it up to the whims of culture or peers. Focus your energy—and your prayers—on discerning your children’s future callings, then start preparing them.
The Apprenticeship Model
If college is not for everyone, what is the alternative?
For thousands of years before the rise of universities, people learned from mentors.
Paul Gautschi is a master gardener and arborist in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. While Paul and his wife were homeschooling their seven kids, Paul would often bring them to work. His kids would pick up and dispose of prunings and help with simple, repetitive tasks. “In doing that they learned, were connected, and felt needed,” he said. “When you take your kids to work with you, they think, ‘I’m needed, I’m a necessary part of this family.’ That is powerful!”
As I have previously written, under apprenticeships there is more happening than merely a technical education. Ethics, culture and faith are also getting transferred in the process.
To those seeking to become arborists—or enter any profession for that matter, Paul offers this advice: “Find a master. Moses mentored Joshua. Jesus mentored the twelve disciples. Paul mentored Timothy and Titus. Throughout history, everywhere in the world, people who were successful learned from masters. It’s always been that way.”