‘Did you need to go to college to become a welder?” I asked. Jeff Jenkins answered with a chuckle. “No, no I didn’t.” Jenkins, owner of an HVAC company and a welding firm in Austin, educated me for the next 25 minutes on what it takes to get into — and succeed at — the trades.
I needed this education because I was confused by an assertion that Paul Tough makes in “Welding won’t make you rich,” an excerpt from his new book, The Years That Matter Most, in the September 2019 issue of The Atlantic. Mr. Tough says that “in order to become a welder, you actually have to go to college.” He makes this point after relating a heartbreaking story about a young man who wanted to better himself and his family’s prospects through education. Orry liked welding in high school and was encouraged by his girlfriend to look at the offerings of the local community college. He decided to pursue Catawba Valley Community College’s associate’s degree in welding technology.
This takeaway from Mr. Tough’s article was recently picked up by Richard Whitmire in Forbes, and further expanded upon:
To gain a welding certification, you first have to go to college (yes, college!) to earn an associate’s degree, [Mr. Tough] said, which requires passing basic classes in math and English and, at the Ohio (sic) community college [Mr. Tough] cited, 13 separate welding courses. The would-be welder Tough profiles in the book struggled with college, fell short of completing and yet faced $19,000 in school debts.
The skilled craftspeople of my acquaintance beg to differ.
Certainly community college is one pathway into welding. But an Associate in Applied Science degree in welding is not the only offering of Catawba Valley Community College in this field — a welding certificate program is also available. It does not require the math and English courses that had proven to be an obstacle to Orry’s graduation with an A.A.S. in welding technology.
However, it turns out there is still another well-trodden pathway into welding — apprenticeship. Mr. Jenkins’s account of how he became a welder and eventually went on to own both a welding and HVAC company is consistent with how the other skilled tradespeople I’ve interviewed have attained their skills. The BLS’s Occupational Outlook Handbook states: “Although numerous employers are willing to hire inexperienced entry-level workers and train them on the job, many prefer to hire workers who have been through training or credentialing programs. Even entry-level workers with formal technical training still receive several months of on-the-job training.” This statement does not provide any quantification on what “numerous” means, but it seems a lot more than just a few. Careful readers will also note that “training or credentialing program” does not necessarily mean college, and “formal technical training” could be obtained in a good high school vocational program.
Pipeline welding is more specialized than residential architecture, but again, the training required need not occur at a college. Trade schools, short-term earn-while-you-learn programs provided by employers, and unions play very important roles in this ecosystem.
Mr. Jenkins was introduced to welding in high school and obtained certification while there. He graduated in 1990, and then went on to work for an employer who continued to train him on the job. A few years later, he decided to make the switch to HVAC and did take some college courses in preparation for pursuing this new occupation.
Upon finding that welding is, in fact, mostly an earn-while-you-learn trade, I felt even more upset by Orry’s plight. A person in his situation may have been better off by finding an employer in the manufacturing or construction business who was willing to teach the basics on the job, which would then lead to the skills needed to pass certification. In addition to the usual job search websites, local unions, and Apprenticeship.gov are sources of information about where to find entry-level jobs that offer earn-while-you learn experience.
That Orry became disillusioned after not being able to complete his associate’s degree in welding — and ending up with $19,000 in student loan debt — is completely understandable and heartbreaking. According to Mr. Tough:
Orry was no longer feeling all that optimistic about the welding profession. Despite the sunny claims of The Wall Street Journal and Marco Rubio, the real-life welding jobs that Orry was able to find in western North Carolina were paying experienced welders between $12 and $15 an hour, which was less than he was making at the door factory. Orry knew that better-paying welding jobs existed, but they were far away and short-term and physically arduous, and if he went out and chased one, he’d have to leave his kids behind. Now that he was back together with Katie and they had what felt like a genuine family, he wanted to stay close to home and be a real father. Besides, even those well-paying welding jobs didn’t pay that well—maybe $30 or $40 an hour, if he got lucky.
It’s a fair point that welding has in some ways become a trope that is trotted out by politicians and others in a debate over value of public investment in higher education. Marco Rubio’s recent “Case for Common-Good Capitalism” builds on themes the senator has previously emphasized, including the importance of vocational education. Mr. Rubio’s support for vocational education in a 2015 presidential debate was overshadowed by his claim, “Welders make more money than philosophers,” a statement which was extensively fact-checked and which he later clarified. Mr. Tough is quite right that welders do not typically make $150,000 per year. The median wage for welders, according to the BLS, is $41,380. Like most jobs, you don’t start out at the top of the income range. As you gain more experience, you get paid more.
But wages for welders, even less experienced ones, are better in some places than others, as Mr. Tough points out. Texas is a pretty good place to be a welder (or just about anything else) these days. The Houston Chronicle has a useful primer on the process of becoming a journeyman pipefitter, which describes apprenticeship (no college required) in this specialized welding field. But Orry was unwilling to move, a disinclination that is unfortunately widespread in our current moment, but one that may contribute to less-than-optimal employment outcomes.
Orry might make more if he moved and got more experience (this is true of most jobs, for what it’s worth). But Mr. Tough’s dismissal of $30-$40 per hour jobs as not paying that well was confusing. If what he means is that these jobs do not add up to $150,000 per year, that is correct arithmetic. On the other hand, if what he means is that a job that pays between $62,400 and $83,200 year is not that good of a job, I’d have to ask, compared to what? The per capita annual income in North Carolina is $46,117. If you’re comparing it to exiting from Harvard with an entry level job at McKinsey for $105,000, then no, these wages aren’t that good. But then how many of the rest of us had that deal right out of college?
Another way to look at Orry’s unfortunate situation would be to ask why the community college doesn’t bear some responsibility for allowing him to go $19,000 in debt and not be able to complete the degree program. If the institution that had left him high and dry had been a for-profit college, we might be outraged by similar practices. Incidentally, this problem is not isolated to a particular welding program at a community college: Program-level data just released by the Department of Education as part of the College Scorecard have thrown a spotlight on the poor debt-to-earning ratios of programs ranging from social work to film studies.
According to a recent report from the New York Federal Reserve Bank and related by Jack Kelly in Forbes, college graduates with a B.A. are more likely to be underemployed than the population as a whole. So while the promise of higher education will pay off financially for many who pursue it, it’s not monolithically true. It is largely dependent on where you go to school, what you major in, if you graduate on time, whether you are willing to relocate, and if you have meaningful internships in college.
Mr. Jenkins is concerned that not enough students in high school are now getting the kind of vocational education he was able to access in the late 1980s. In central Texas at the time, many vocational education classes were under the umbrella of “ag” courses. He learned to take care of pigs, but also how to weld and build things. He is now paying it forward, having taken on two high school students as apprentices at his welding company.
When I asked Mr. Jenkins what advice he’d have for a young person who was interested in pursuing work in the skilled trades right out of high school, he said, “Get a job in the field and start working your butt off. Get dirty. Understand that’s what this work is about. We need to let a guy know that it’s okay work with his hands.”
College is not a guaranteed path to the American dream. Neither are the skilled trades. If both sides of this debate were more realistic with young people about the fact that America is a place where you make your own path, we might find that their decisions about their present and future were more prudent.