Thursday, September 29, 2011

Reality check; why college may not be the right place for your child

Guidance counsellors all across North America are still flogging the dead old statistic about how much more lifetime income your kid is going to make if they go to college. The world has changed, and as usual, high school guidance counsellors will be the last to know.

Today, an undergraduate degree in the liberal arts will get you a job driving a cab. As long as you have a driver's license, that is. And even that isn't the case anymore in the jurisdictions that have put in special licensing requirements for cab drivers, like New York City and Boston. So why are the guidance counsellors still quoting the obsolete stats?

Old habits die hard. We went through two or three generations post WW II where it was demonstrably true that a college education gave you an edge in the workforce. That's the era the guidance counsellor's statistics come from. That was then, this is now.

Everything happening now in the economy owes something to NAFTA. That's the agreement signed in '92 by the leaders of Canada, Mexico, and the USA. This was the deal that was sold as a win-win-win at the time. Between Mexican labour, American money, and Canadian resources, this was a trade bloc that was going to beat the world.

I was a humble shop-floor operative in Canada at the time, and even then I could see the flaws. Wait a minute... the Black Lung Foundry in Dayton Ohio can now ship it's production to Mexico, beyond the reach of the USW? And those $20 an hour jobs in Dayton are going to be replaced by... by what exactly? Well, by Mexican wages in Mexico! Good news for the Walther family, not so great for the shop-floor guys in Dayton and in the Black Lung branch plants in Canada.

NAFTA gave the official seal of approval to the wholesale off-shoring of well-paying jobs in the USA and Canada. It was the beginning of the end of an industrial working class in North America. It's all gone now. Hold the Kleenex. There are no jobs for your children in America's industrial economy. So where are the jobs?

For young people making career decisions today, the first order of business is to look at work that can't be off-shored. (Unless of course your kids want to ratchet up a $50,000 student loan bill and then take a job in India or China for six thousand a year).

What can't be off-shored? Think about it. The local repair shop fixes combines and tractors and does repair welding. None of that work can be sent to China or Mexico. In the little town I lived in a few years ago, the nicest and largest homes belonged to the father and son team who ran Mel's Welding. If you're doing a little renovating, you can't call a drywall guy from China, can you? Plumbers, electricians, mechanics, carpenters, millwrights, you name it, they're all busy.

In twenty years time this will be the new elite. Yes, I suppose there are always going to be a few Wharton grads who step into $150,000 a year job offers, but that's a dying segment of the job market. Your MBA from a second tier university will be next to useless. It'll get you a job driving a cab, as long as you have a drivers license.

Meanwhile, the people who can actually do stuff that other people need done will be in the driver's seat. If you want your kid to have a prosperous future, find them an apprenticeship in one of the trades. No SAT's, no student loans, and when you're old, you'll be living in their basement, smoking Cohiba's and polishing their Ferrari.

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