Life-long Learning vs Higher Education

It’s almost graduation season. Probably many of you high school grads are tired of thinking about, and answering questions like “What college are you going to in the fall?” Or, explaining why you aren’t planning to go to college right away - or maybe ever. And, many of you college grads are losing sleep at night, wondering whether you’re going to be able to land an interesting and lucrative job after being a student for most of your life.

As a parent, I remember this time last year as my son, Sean, was preparing to graduate from Colorado School of Mines with an engineering degree. I felt a great deal of pride, mixed with a whole lot of relief. No more college tuition bills - Yay! My husband and I started saving for college when our boys were young. Our older son, Jason, had graduated from Mines three years earlier, also with an engineering degree. We scrimped and saved, and still ended up with parent loans. Our boys also ended up with their own student loans. Both Jason and Sean would say they made the right choice, but it was costly - and not just in terms of money spent, but in the countless hours spent sitting in lectures and studying.

College tuition has risen over 500% since 1982, which is about when I graduated from the University of Arizona. At today’s prices, I think it’s a good idea to ask what you’re buying, and whether it’s a good return on investment. I think it’s also important to look at other options. One of my young clients is taking a break from high school to apprentice as a plumber. She’s loving the challenge and feels that she’s learning useful and productive skills. I thought of her as I watched this video interview with Mike Rowe, the star of the TV series “Dirty Jobs”. Rowe is articulate and passionate about breaking through the stigma of working in the trades, or what many think of as dirty jobs.

Rowe explains that there are lots of relatively high-paying jobs that are going unfilled in our country. They require people with specialized skills, like electricians, plumbers, welders, technicians. Skills that traditionally were acquired through vocational training and/or apprenticeships. They also require people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and word hard. He is asking parents, guidance counselors, students and business leaders/owners, to question whether it makes sense to simply assume that a college degree is the preferred choice for everyone. What if… instead of spending a minimum of $80,000 on a bachelor degree, a person used that money to start a small business? Or learned a valuable skill, gained work experience, and earned money for those 4+ years. The alternative for many college students is to graduate with unrealistic expectations of their worth in the job market, along with a heavy burden of debt.

I showed this video to my sons, who are both working as engineers. Jason graduated with a degree in petroleum engineering, just in time for the downturn in the oil and gas industry. He was laid off from Halliburton after a few months and couldn’t find a job in his field. He took what work he could find, and eventually acquired skills and experience that helped him land an engineering position at an aerospace company.

Luckily enough I got a taste of hard labor (very hard labor in fact!) at Halliburton. In the short time I was there, it taught me a lot about myself and what I did NOT want to do. Despite my fairly short stint, I do think that experience sets me apart from most of my colleagues. I know how hard it can be on the other side and I think it makes me appreciate what I have a fair bit more than most of the other engineers I work with. I also realized very quickly how much I didn’t know compared to the so called laborers who never went to college.

Whether you love or hate doing the so called “dirty jobs”, I think experiencing them at some point will only benefit you in the long run. Part of the reason field engineers get so much grief is they come across as young arrogant kids who don’t know what those words “strong work ethic” they so blatantly stamp on their resume’s actually mean.

I think getting a college degree inherently gives most people a false sense of entitlement; I know I definitely felt that prior to starting at Halliburton. I think that most college graduates wrongly believe they are in some way better than non-college grads and this is a terrible mindset. Not only do you miss out on so many learning opportunities because you discount the intelligence of others, but you too quickly alienate yourself from opportunities that may make you happier and even wealthier in the long-run.
— Jason Bell
“I really like Mike Rowe. He was speaking a lot of truths that you just don't hear often. I have experienced some of what he was talking about first hand working with all the machinists at my company. They are some really smart people who are much more capable than many of the engineers I have worked with.”   ~ Sean Bell, Manufacturing Engineer

“I really like Mike Rowe. He was speaking a lot of truths that you just don't hear often. I have experienced some of what he was talking about first hand working with all the machinists at my company. They are some really smart people who are much more capable than many of the engineers I have worked with.”

~ Sean Bell, Manufacturing Engineer

I absolutely loved my college experience. I’ve been a nerd my whole life, and am never happier than when I’m learning. What I discovered after college, however, was how much fun it can be to pick and choose what I want to learn. There is a wealth of classes, workshops, self-study courses available on nearly every subject. They tend to be inexpensive, and in some cases, free. Recently I downloaded a free audio course on genetics, taught by a leading professor at UC Davis. It was so current that the professor kept saying “this is what we know today, but it may change next year”. (Yes, I really am a nerd!)

To be successful in today’s fast-changing world, we all have to become life-long learners. Whether you graduate with a college degree or choose a different path, stay curious.