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Meet Jack The Plumber/ Philosopher

October 15, 2015

Over the weekend, I came across an editorial by Jack Hope, a philosopher turned philosopher/plumber, that puts a name and face to a question that has garnered a reasonable amount of attention in recent months – Should a college degree still be hailed as a key barometer of achievement, and, with few exceptions, a prerequisite to, and trophy of, the American dream?

As Jack illustrates, forgoing college in lieu of learning a trade isn’t about embracing mediocrity; it’s just plain common economic sense, particularly in light of the current employment dynamic.  Considering that 80% of Americans view themselves to be ‘above average’, this might be a tough pill for many to swallow.  But, once we are able to overcome any social stigma, it will undoubtedly make all of us better off.

Jack the Philosopher/Plumber writes:

Allow me to introduce myself; my name is Jack Hope and I own Hope Plumbing in Indianapolis, Indiana.  I want to speak briefly about education, the economy, and the skilled tradesperson.  While I acknowledge that my education has helped to make me who I am, I would like to challenge the notion that everyone should go to college. 

With the help of two loving parents, I graduated from a private high school in Indianapolis, and went on to pursue an undergraduate degree from Indiana University, which was also paid for by my parents.  From there, I earned my Masters degree, also from IU, in Philosophy with a Special Concentration in Bioethics.  During this time, I became the Philosophy Department’s teaching assistant, which allowed me to design and teach my own courses.  As a result, in addition to receiving a small stipend, my own tuition was also paid for.

I have subsequently gone on to instruct philosophy and ethics courses at two prominent educational institutions, and now, I currently own a successful plumbing business in Indianapolis.

I want you to ask yourself a set of questions.  How many college-educated people do you know that work in a job that requires substantially less education?  How many college-educated people do you know that can’t find jobs at all?  How many people do you know who do not work in a field from which their degree came?  How many college educated people do you know that can’t afford their student loan payments?  If you are at all like me, you know plenty. 

As noted in a recent Business Insider article, “the pool of college graduates is growing more than twice as fast as the pool of jobs requiring a college degree.”  

Now, ask yourself another set of questions.  How many skilled tradespeople do you know that work in a job that requires substantially less education?  How many skilled tradespeople do you know that can’t find jobs at all?  How many skilled tradespeople do you know who do not work in a field from which their degree came?  How many skilled tradespeople do you know that cannot afford their student loans?  It you are at all like me, you do not know any.  But for many of you, sadly, that may be because you just do not know any tradespeople.

If you don’t really know a skilled tradesperson or what it means to be one, I will tell you. A skilled tradesperson is simply a person who works in a skilled trade.  Licensed plumbers, electricians, mechanics, insulators and drywall installers are all great examples of skilled tradespeople.  A skilled tradesperson typically spends time, following high school, in an apprenticeship program and when it is complete, earns a license in his or her trade.

No matter what you think about the economy, we can all agree that a stronger, safer, more diversified and growing economy is something we all want.  How do we obtain such an economy?  For starters, people need jobs.  People need jobs that allow them to pay the bills, have a little fun and save some money for later. This can be really hard to do if you have $8,000 in student loan payments each year and a job that pays $38,000 per year. 

So what do we do? 

We need to again start telling people that it is okay (and even admirable) to get their hands dirty.  Manual labor is not evil.  Have you ever considered that most people in the United States can no longer really fix anything?  How many people do you know that can repair their own toilet, change the oil in their own car, or even simply change a tire?  What happened to teaching young people how to fix stuff?  We have long been a nation that prides itself on hard work.  Put down the iPad and help your kids take something apart.  If we want people to find jobs, let us figure out how to get people the skills needed for the jobs that exist today, and 5 or 10 years down the road.

“The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity
will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” – John W. Gardner

Every time I talk to someone about plumbing, they comment on how gross it must be and every time I reply, “that is why they pay us the big bucks.”  People, of course, think I am kidding, but the average starting salary for a licensed plumber in our shop is $45,000 per year with full health benefits, life insurance, a paid cell phone, a take home vehicle and matched retirement savings. 

While that may not be big bucks for some of you big shots, a new report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers finds that just three liberal arts majors had average starting salaries that topped $40,000 in 2012.  The average cost of tuition for a college degree from a private college is about $127,000 and the average cost of tuition for a degree from a public college is about $37,800.  On the other hand, the average cost of a (4) year apprenticeship program for a plumber in Indiana is $5,800 and an employer will often cover those costs for a good employee.  We require all of our technicians to attend the apprenticeship program and those costs are covered in full. 

What Hope Plumbing needs, and what the economy needs, is large amounts of skilled tradespeople that are ready to go to work.  Please don’t get me wrong, I think that a Liberal Arts degree can be fantastic for the right person, but I challenge the notion that everyone needs a bachelor’s degree.  One of the largest problems that Hope Plumbing has (as well as most other skilled trades businesses) has, boils down to finding qualified tradespeople.  Find me a person with a few years of experience, a little bit of personality and a plumbing license and I will find them a job.  Find me a person with little to no experience, massive amounts of personality and a Liberal Arts degree and I will have an engaging conversation with them about the “original position” most recently espoused by John Rawls in Justice as Fairness and the irony of mentioning it here.

Stop being lazy, back away from the computer screen, pick up a hammer and learn how to build something. 

Jack Hope

It’s refreshing to see that Jack the Plumber is not Joe the Plumber. He doesn’t politicize the issue or talk about how many people he employs, the ramifications of ObamaCare, or lament a lack of understanding on the part of east coast liberals.  It’s simply a common sense and practical real-world viewpoint and recommendation in the context of the world we live in, and what, in all likelihood, the world will look like five or ten years from now.

While I think Jack’s message succinctly encapsulates this message better than any statistic, this is clearly a topic that has received considerable attention of late, particularly in the context of long-term underemployment.  The oft brusque Mayor Bloomberg caught heat recently for saying that people should consider skipping college to be a plumber or to master another in-demand skill or craft.  The statistics (taken from Richard Vedder’s excellent essay on the subject), it seems, are very much in Bloomberg’s (and Jack’s) favor, particularly for those that do not excel at a handful of elite colleges and universities:

  • 48% of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests requires less than a four-year college education.
  • 33% of college graduates said they did not feel that college had fully prepared them for the working world, and 55% said they’d choose a different school or a different major if they could do it again.
  • Youth unemployment is at its highest level since WW2; not to mention 35% of Millennials – those born in the 80s or 90s – still live with their parents.
  • 32% of graduates from the past two years reported a current salary of less than $25k.
  • The average student debt has doubled in the last 10 years, to $40k, and it’s only going in one direction.
  • And considering that 45% of those entering college fail to graduate within six years, why do too many kids even bother?

Most amazingly, only 30 million jobs exist in America that require a college education, and there are currently more than 60 million Americans with a college degree.  Furthermore, over the next 7 years, the number of Americans with a Bachelors Degree is projected to increase by 30% (19 million), while the number of jobs requiring a college degree by only 14% (7 million).

“LinkedIn is the of the underemployed.”@GSElevator

Hence, more and more college graduates are crowding out High School graduates in traditionally blue-collar, low-skilled jobs – working in The Gap, at Starbucks, or as a bartender.

A great way of articulating this:

“Suppose in 1970, a bar owner advertised for a bartender and received 15 applicants, most or all of whom had high school diplomas.  He would most likely choose the bartender on criteria unrelated to educational credentials.  Suppose today, another bar owner likewise advertises for a bartender, and also gets 15 applicants, but four have bachelor’s degrees.  The owner, to minimize time and resources devoted to interviewing a long line of applicants, might restrict interviews to the four holders of degrees, since it is likely a priori that these persons will on average be a little smarter, a little more reliable, etc., than the other applicants.  Education, heretofore not much of a screening device, has become one in terms of hiring the most qualified person for jobs for which skill requirements are relatively modest and learned on the job quickly.  The existence of an ample supply of college graduate bartenders has created a demand for them.”[i]

From this, one might conclude that a college degree is necessary now more than ever, just to compete for jobs that traditionally would not require a college degree.  This logic is fine if you want to be a college-educated barista or bartender.

“Thanks to the economic crisis, bartending got upgraded from a job to a career.” – @GSElevator

As has clearly been stated and supported statistically, a technical degree is likely to be more financially valuable than a liberal arts degree – both today, and in all likelihood, ten years from now.  Some of the fastest growing job categories are currently in middle-skill positions that do not require a four-year education.  Plumber, nurse, electrician, real estate broker, air-traffic controller – the list goes on and on…

Study for four years, rack up tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and then struggle to find meaningful employment… Or very quickly become an electrician, nurse, or plumber.  Can you say opportunity cost?  The 2012 median pay for plumbers was almost $49,000, while the median pay for all occupations was slightly more than $33,000.  Moreover, the top 10% of plumbers earn more than $79,000, and the job segment is projected to grow 26% through 2020, with new construction and a wave of baby boomer retirements among older plumbers spurring employment.

Shouldn’t we be telling our average students to start a career as a plumber, and aim to one day own a fleet of plumbing trucks?

We can expect that, over time, market forces will solve the problem.  But in the meantime, people need to wake up.  This naïve, elitist  “college for all” dream is the simply the wrong mantra.  Its wrong for the individuals chasing this dream, and it’s wrong for America.  We need to be talking about “appropriate skills for all” instead.

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