Dear Mr. Dad, my son will be finishing high school this year and my wife and I want to help set him on a good career path. We’d always assumed that he’d go to college, but he’s a lot more interested in carpentry—and he’s really good. I’ve been reading about how hard it is for young people to get a job these days, even with a degree. Should we push him towards college or encourage him to develop his skills in a trade school?
A: There are, of course, plenty of exceptions, but for the most part, having only a high school diploma severely limits upward mobility and earnings. For that reason, encouraging your son to get any kind of higher education is the right thing to do. And it’s good that you’re open-minded enough to consider non-college higher education options. The fact is that although we’ve been pushing it on kids for decades, college is not the right place for everyone. Only about a third of recent college grads are working in a field that’s related to their major, and unemployment lines are filled with young people who haven’t been able to find jobs at all.
The most important factor here is for your son to pursue a career he’s truly interested in. For him, that’s carpentry, but for the children of other readers who are facing similar dilemmas, that could be any number of things, including auto repair, plumbing, gardening, cooking, construction, and even web design. None of those skills requires a college degree and all of them can provide a good income, because there will always be a need for people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty (literally and metaphorically).
Plus, if your son is entrepreneurial, tradespeople are more likely than those with traditional college educations to start and run their own businesses.
But let’s get back to higher education. No matter how good your son is, he’s still got a lot to learn—and he can do a lot of that learning in a specialized trade school. Unfortunately, trade schools often get a bad rap because of the conventional wisdom that a 4-year degree is always better.
Again, finding one’s passion is important, but not everyone can identify what that is. Fortunately, there are a lot of great resources out there. There are, for example, a number of online tools that can help identify skills and interests as well as career paths that can leverage them. These include Myers-Briggs, and the Clifton StrengthsFinder (from Gallup). Your son’s high school guidance counselor may have some additional suggestions.
You and your son might also want to consider community college as a kind of hybrid solution. Many community colleges offer 2-year certificate programs that provide excellent education and hands-on training in a number of trade professions.
You might also look into the military, where he can get top-quality training in huge variety of fields. He’ll also be getting paid and will be accruing educational benefits that he can use to pay for college if he ends up deciding to go that route later.
Finally, pick up a copy of Dan Schawbel’s “Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success.” Schawbel is Millennial career guru and his book has a ton of suggestions for non-traditional ways young people can assess their passions and acquire the skills they’ll need to get them where they want to go in life.