My family has experienced two firsts with my generation: we have the first college graduate and the first successful business owner.
They are two entirely different people.
I am the college graduate with undergraduate and graduate degrees in journalism; I now work as a public relations professional and teach a few college classes. I rely on other people for my income. My cousin Jason, a high school graduate, runs a very successful heating and air conditioning business in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He provides jobs for 20 people.
I have tremendous admiration for Jason. Not only is he a savvy business owner, he’s also a great husband, father and all-around nice guy. He is a living testimony of the success that can be attained by someone who pursues a skilled trade. He’s spent his entire life working hard and smart, and he uses these skills to help others provide for their families.
That admiration doesn’t diminish the hard work that went into building my college-based career; I paid my dues to get here through years of studying and course work, professional certifications, grueling hours at the office and a lot of personal sacrifices of self, time and energy.
I also struggled financially and incurred debt.
I was fortunate to have an academic scholarship for my undergraduate degree during the late 80s, but I still had to work to cover my living expenses. I received a great education and decided I wanted to return for my graduate degree a few years later. There were no scholarships for graduate students, and my full-time salary was barely enough to cover my rent, so I financed roughly $7,000 to cover my tuition and books. (That graduate degree would cost roughly $20,000 today.) Did all that education pay off? Yes and no. My current earnings are modest, but I love what I do.
Jason’s career cost? Nada. Zip. Nothing. He got his start working for an HVAC company as an apprentice and worked his way up the ladder. His earnings? Way more than mine, and he loves what he does, too.
College is not the only option
Today, skilled trades are in demand. The demand for workers with art, history or literature degrees has always been small, and it’s nearly microscopic today. In fact, there are 3 million jobs out there that companies are having a hard time filling – and you don’t have to give up $70,000 in tuition money or postpone a real paycheck for four years to get them. Apprenticeships and vocational training can open the doors.
My experience and the nation’s economic slump have taught me college may not be the best option for everyone, and consequently, it’s not on my list of “Thou Shalts” for my children.
My teenage daughter loves school and has her heart set on being a teacher, which means tuition bills will likely hit our family in just a few years. I don’t mind because this is what she WANTS to do, not what we’re forcing her to do. She also understands that college is not a four-year party financed by mom and dad; she has to contribute as well.
My 10-year-old son has different goals. He’s always been on hands-on learner with a mantra of “I can do it.” He’s not a big fan of the classroom, but he’s a frightening good strategist and has a heart for protecting others. His life goal? He hasn’t narrowed it down, but military service, law enforcement and restaurant owner have been mentioned.
Just as my grandmother is proud of the firsts Jason and I attained, I will be proud of my children and the firsts they attain for the family. My daughter could join a long line of teachers, or my son could be the first Navy SEAL or restaurateur in the family. Regardless of what future paths they choose, I look forward to cheering them on as they pick up skills that will enable them to support themselves and their future families – and I pray they do it without debt.
Learn more about college alternatives at MikeRoweWorks.com.
The former “Dirty Jobs” host launched an initiative last year to encourage more students and young adults to pursue in-demand skilled trades rather than incur debt and face uncertain job prospects. His site has great information on job profiles, trade news, financial aid and much more.