Think beyond college

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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Work all day, and whaddaya get? Another day older and deeper in debt.

Tweak the 1940s tune about a coal miner’s life, and you’ve got a song that sounds familiar to today’s college students. Three out of five graduates of Washington universities take out loans to pay for school, borrowing an average of $19,780, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Conventional wisdom says higher education is worth the investment. Nationwide, only 4.3 percent of college grads are unemployed, compared with 15.2 percent of high-school dropouts. A college degree boosts earning potential for a lifetime. The U.S. needs more scientists, mathematicians and engineers, and the best way to mint them is through universities. Many jobs require academic credentials.

But our national obsession with higher ed has blinded us to important realities. College debt limits graduates’ life choices. Not every major is likely to lead to a job. Many people find office work to be deeply unsatisfying.

Peter Thiel believes we’ve got a higher ed bubble. “To call something a bubble, it must be overpriced and there must be an intense belief in it,” Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and was an early Facebook investor, told The Economist. With education, he said, “people are not getting their money’s worth, objectively, when you do the math.”

Thiel’s overstating things, but he’s right to question the national obsession with college at the expense of an option with ancient roots and very modern opportunities: Apprenticeship.

Apprentices are paid as they learn and may even have a guaranteed job upon graduating to journeyman status. More than 10,000 are now enrolled in 256 programs statewide.

Mike Richart prefers the know-how of apprentices over that of workers with academic knowledge but not a lot of hands-on skills. Not satisfied with the skills of classroom-trained weatherization technicians, Richart, co-owner of Vancouver building company RichArt Family, turned to the state Department of Labor & Industries to create a weatherization apprenticeship program — possibly the nation’s first. At wages that start around $11 to $12 an hour, participants will learn to make houses more energy efficient. After two years of work and 288 hours in the classroom, they’ll become journeymen and make $20 an hour or more.

There are drawbacks. Many apprenticeships require math skills that rule some students out. Colleges can increase class size, but apprenticeships are limited to the number of openings that employers offer. No credential is a guarantee of work, as journeymen in the building trades have learned during this prolonged slump in construction.

Still, Charlie Brinkmeyer, apprenticeship consultant with the state, expects that more cutting-edge apprenticeships are on the horizon, especially in the solar and wind energy fields.

“I’m not docking college, it’s a good option for some people,” Brinkmeyer said. “I’d like to see the stereotype removed that if you’re not college material, maybe you should look at the trades, like they’re not on the same level.”

I agree. Work all day, and whaddaya get? A paycheck seems better than a whole lot of debt.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.