News and Tribune

May 17, 2013

DODD: Checking out the job prospects


> SOUTHERN INDIANA — As Kim and I prepare to watch Cameron graduate from high school, I am more confused than ever as to what educational paths I would suggest to young people.

I know Cameron has chosen his path. It’s a matter of faith these days. Since he will study computers, as such I can only imagine there will be a future of some kind for him. I am somewhat convinced that they are here to stay.

It’s much harder to advise young people today as to what they should pursue for a career. It’s also harder to determine the actual value in higher education. The costs of some educational institutions of higher learning are astronomical compared to what the potential payoff might be.

We had one school offer Cameron a $60,000 scholarship. After that offer, it would still cost about $28,000 per year. The only way an average American middle-class family could come up with that amount is to incur loans.

I can’t even imagine a student who would graduate with student loans of $50,000 or more. An NPR radio show recently featured ex-students who were unemployed and had racked up as much as $150,000 in student loans. That’s like buying a house and having no house.

I cannot possibly see anyone who isn’t in the medical filed or some other top professional field being able to dig their way out of such an obligation.

One of the things I have observed over my 40-plus years of working is the relative value in attending a large and expensive university versus a smaller commuter community college. I graduated from Indiana University Southeast and in my corporate years worked alongside people who were at my level that had attended such prestigious universities as Notre Dame, and I once worked with someone with an Ivy League degree. My total student loan was for $5,500 from 1975-79 and I spent $5,000 on a used car during that time.

When I graduated, a college degree was really worth something. I still thought then as I do now that anyone with enough time and money can get a college education. I have worked alongside some pretty dim bulbs that had a college degree.

I have never equated intelligence and common sense with a diploma.

I think a couple of things have changed in our culture since my days that have muddied up the waters of choosing college or no college. One is simply that I think colleges have become somewhat of a corporate paper mill. I have never thought higher education was the right fit for everyone. I still don’t.

However, when I graduated from high school there were many more options for a high school graduate. It was still a time when hard work and the ability to learn could lead to a very solid middle-class life. Many of those positions were in good-paying manufacturing jobs. Many of those have gone by the wayside through a combination of technological advances and outsourcing to third-world countries.

There has also been an ethical shift that somewhat demeans those without a college degree or toward those who work with their hands. It’s as if we don’t value trades such as electricians, plumbers or the construction trades. Have you hired a plumber on an emergency basis on a weekend and seen the bill?

I was talking with State Rep. Steve Stemler one afternoon when I was running a Job Corps office. He told me they had trouble finding young people with minimal mechanical skills and a desire to enter the plumbing field when there was an opening. Stemler informed me that after five years, a young person who was willing to work hard could make up to $75,000 per year with his company.

Such conversations have stuck with me from my Job Corps days. The number of officially unemployed Americans hovers at around 11.7 million. This past week, I saw a report that stated there were around 3 million job openings for plumbers and electricians that were going unfilled because of a shortage of qualified applicants. That accounts for roughly 24 percent of the officially unemployed.

According to a Huffington Post article, the rate of unemployment for college graduates between the ages of 20 and 24 is around 12.1 percent.

There seems to be what I find an elitist philosophy among educators today that we need 90 percent of all high school graduates to be college ready. In my opinion, continuing to send people who don’t have the aptitude or true ability to colleges will only lead to more unaffordable debt and water down the value of a college education even more.

Shouldn’t we focus more on a combination of vocational training and creating and sustaining futuristic jobs like industrial robotics and other advanced industrial fields? Some companies have had such a hard time finding adequately trained workers that they have formed vocational training programs to fill the need.

Why aren’t we doing that as a part of preparing young people for the future?

College is not for everybody. And as I have written before, there is no foreseeable end to almost everybody I know having to have running water and a working toilet in their home.

— Lindon Dodd is a freelance writer who can be reached at