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Welders and Philosophers

One of the more memorable lines from last week’s debate was Marco Rubio’s discussion of higher education.

Here’s the best way to raise wages. Make America the best place in the world to start a business or expand an existing business, tax reform and regulatory reform, bring our debt under control, fully utilize our energy resources so we can reinvigorate manufacturing, repeal and replace Obamacare, and make higher education faster and easier to access, especially vocational training. For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.

If we do that — and if we do this — if we do this, we will be able to increase wages for millions of Americans and we will be able to leave everyone better off without making anyone worse off.

The “welders versus philosophers” thing is just a specific version of an argument about the value of a “liberal arts” degree. I’m a liberal arts graduate myself (history), and so is Senator Rubio (political science). But Rubio is right about the liberal arts in general. Right now, the structures of the system are skewed in their favor, and that skew does a disservice to people: “lower prestige” jobs like welding are stigmatized culturally, and billions of dollars in higher education financing subsidizes degrees that are not necessarily resulting in the development of employable skills.

Rubio’s position is best examined in the context of another answer he gave, this one in response to a question on automation costing people jobs.

… what we are going through in this country is not simply an economic downturn. We are living through a massive economic transformation. I mean, this economy is nothing like what it was like five years ago, not to mention 15 or 20 years ago.

And it isn’t just a different economy. It’s changing faster than ever. You know, it took the telephone 75 years to reach 100 million users. It took Candy Crush one year to reach some 100 million users.

So the world is changing faster than ever, and it is disruptive. Number one, we are in a global competition now, and several of the candidates have said that. There are now dozens of developed economies on this planet that we have to compete with. And we lose that competition because we have the highest business tax rate in the industrialized world, because we have regulations that continue to grow by the billions every single week, because we have a crazy health care law that discourages companies from hiring people, but because we’re not fully utilizing our energy resources, that if we did, it would bring back all kinds of growth, especially in manufacturing, and because we have an outdated higher education system.

Our higher education system is completely outdated. It is too expensive, too hard to access, and it doesn’t teach 21st century skills. If we do what needs to be done — tax reform, regulatory reform, fully utilize our energy resources, repeal and replace Obamacare, and modernize higher education, then we can grasp the potential and the promise of this new economy. And we won’t just save the American dream. We will expand it to reach more people and change more lives than ever before. And then truly this new century can be a new American century.

If there is a broad theme of Rubio’s domestic policy proposals so far, it is that the United States has outdated institutions that are choking its ability to thrive in the 21st century. (Historian Walter Russell Mead might call this the “blue social model.”) Rubio is arguing that conservative principles, applied to the problems of today, can benefit America. Much of this, then, is about confronting existing institutions that are no longer working. Higher education is one of the bulwarks of the old model, and Rubio seeks to challenge it. He laid out the basics of his plan in an editorial in the Des Moines Register in September, proposing the following:

  • Make it easier for new institutions to become accredited.
  • Increase the availability of information surrounding expected earnings.
  • Expand financial aid programs to support part-time education.
  • Expand income-based repayment.
  • Increase vocational education.

Rubio’s proposals suggest that his aim is to expand access, along with expanding our conception of what higher education actually is. Right now, when we think higher education, we think about four-year degrees, with other models like part-time education being seen as “lesser.” Instead of expanding that system, Rubio is suggesting that we allow other models to challenge that status quo.

That is essentially the crux of the “welders over philosophers” argument: the 20th-century university system of four-year degrees from non-profit institutions is not for everyone. Moreover, we are spending a great deal of taxpayer money under the assumption that four-year schools are benefiting everyone. Megan McArdle presented the best case on the “signaling” problem over at Bloomberg:

Administrators defending the value of degrees in “business” or liberal arts rely on nebulous claims that they are teaching students “how to think.” However, they provide little objective evidence that these programs impart thinking skills worth tens of thousands of dollars.

There’s at least some evidence that a lot of the benefit of a college degree comes not from what you learn in college, but from signaling to employers that you are the kind of conscientious, hardworking student who can get into college and stick with it long enough to get a degree. In other words, much of what we do in school is not learn anything in particular, but obtain a credential that certifies us as good potential employees.

As an individual, it’s still perfectly rational to borrow money to invest in that credential, considering the sizeable income bonuses it confers. But public policy has to look at the system, not just what might benefit a particular individual. And at a system level, helping people borrow money to obtain a credential is crazy. A credential doesn’t increase anyone’s productivity; it just determines the distribution of better-paying jobs. [emphasis added] The net economic benefit is zero.

Now, ideally a degree is not just a credential, so the productivity benefits of a diploma are probably greater than zero. But if we could see that much of the economic benefit of college is the credential, rather than the education, would we still pour vast sums of money into higher education?

McArdle argues here that for many people, the benefit of the liberal arts degree is much more in the signal to future employers than in the stuff that people learn in college. Is this really inconceivable to us? How many college students do the bare minimum, engaging only with their readings to the extent required to get a (cheapened, inflated) high grade? How many students save the paper until the last week of the semester, doing a couple of all-nighters to prepare something that gets a B+ from a harried grader? Are those students really getting the benefit of interacting with Plato’s Republic or Voltaire’s Candide? Or are we just pretending that they are?

And yet even with this reality, the system as currently constructed places higher education at the top of the social pyramid. Four-year higher education is the default expectation, the requirement for acceptance in high society. (Just look at the criticism that someone like Scott Walker faced for not finishing his four-year degree.) This would not be a terrible outcome if it were without costs; exposure to philosophy or history isn’t going to hurt someone’s intellectual development. But the costs fall on taxpayers, families, and unsuspecting students. Taxpayers are left on the hook for student loans that are not repaid, and for grants to students. The additional money flowing into schools has actually driven up prices, so much so that middle-income families cannot possibly save enough for the sticker price of college tuition for multiple children. And the students themselves are potential victims, encouraged by their betters to borrow vast amounts of money and go into great debt with no strings attached. No one forces them–or even encourages them–to enter degree programs with higher earnings potential or more immediate practical benefit. All degrees are created equal in this model for all students. Students, moreover, are discouraged from thinking about the practicalities; they are exhorted, for years, to follow their passion. Go to the school that feels like the best fit. Your college years, after all, are the best years of your life.

At the end of it, the best liberal arts majors get good grades and become better critical thinkers, but are not very employable, even with the credential. The lesser students get the credential and the credential alone. In the worst cases, students are overwhelmed by the distractions and end up with no degree, no prospects and a lot of debt.

This is backwards. The vocational path is the lower-risk path, surely, based on demand for services. At some level, we will always need plumbers and electricians. The demand for liberal arts majors is less certain, and much more dependent on the major’s ability to apply their critical thinking and writing skills to something practical. Instead of exhorting all of our high school students to go to four-year school, we should instead be honest about the risks. “You’ll have a great time in college, but you might get overwhelmed by distractions. You’ll likely have to take out a lot of debt, and you may not have great job prospects at the end of it all, particularly if you choose to major in the humanities or social sciences. If you want to study anthropology, strongly consider minoring in something like math.”

Rubio’s plan is, in essence, a response to this reality. Instead of the one-size-fits-all current model, why not allow competing institutions to challenge the status quo? Why not facilitate vocational training, so that young people can enter the workforce soon after high school without crippling levels of debt? Why not make it easier for working people to go back to school at night or on weekends? And why not rely on competition, rather than coercion, to force universities and colleges to innovate?

Sure, the best students–the ones that really want to engage with text and debate–can go to college and go for a liberal arts degree. Some will become professors, others will become lawyers, others will enter business, others will work for government or non-profits. But maybe that’s not the best plan for everyone. Maybe some of those people would be better off developing more hands-on skills, rather than thinking that the four-year degree is their ticket to a comfortable middle-class life.

In the long run, a better model would dispense with the four-year school model entirely and work towards degrees as demonstrations of competence and skill, rather than as signals of time served. But in the meantime, we should expand our options and be open to alternatives, rather than continuing to throw billions of dollars at the status quo. Rubio is right: we need more welders and fewer philosophers, or, at the very least, we need to encourage more people to learn a trade than to make everyone think that they need to go to a four-year school to be successful.

Image by Atli Harðarson


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Dan Scotto lives and works in Oregon. He has a master's degree in history, with a focus on the history of disease and the history of technology.

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182 thoughts on “Welders and Philosophers

  1. There is a lot of logic behind the call for more vocational eduction and STEM education. A lot of liberals are really into the idea that college should be a sort of four years of humanities studies for everybody as an unalloyed good. These liberals tend to forget that most people aren’t nerds and don’t like to study for it’s own sake. Their reasons for going to college are more venal usually. They want a job and hopefully one with a good salary.

    That being said, I do not trust Republicans one bit to create a better and more vocationally based education system. Considering certain other core beliefs of the Republican Party including unfettered market worship and a hatred of certain types of sciences, I suspect them to make a giant hash of it. We will get more private colleges and universities that will happily to soak up federal student loans without actually teaching any vocational and STEM subjects. There will be grift as business people struggle how to make money out of the changes. With America’s racial history, I also suspect that a lot of minorities and kids from poor or working class backgrounds will find themselves pushed into vocational tracks whether they want it or not.

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    • Speaking personally, I find the whole push for STEM thing a red herring. We produce an awful lot of STEM folks anyways. I don’t actually see a giant gap in the amount needed and the amount produced. (I do see, in my own corner, an awful lot of H1B fraud, but that’s IT for you). So what STEM field, exactly, has got such a giant gap and how is it hurting the economy? Mathematicians? Computer scientists? Electrical engineers? Biologists?

      And frankly, half of STEM pays peanuts. I know several people with BS or MS’ in various biology related fields, and they’ve ALL moved to better paying fields that don’t use their degrees. They’re “STEM” degrees, but they don’t take STEM jobs — because STEM doesn’t pay enough.

      So really what STEM boils down to is “Engineers” which are, by and large, at least paid decently. Unless, of course, no one’s hiring or your industry is in a bust cycle or a million other reasons. (Living in Houston, I’ve seen the boom/bust cycle for chemical engineers, aerospace engineers, and half a dozen other ‘engineering’ professions).

      Honestly, STEM just sounds like a magic word now. If we graduate enough STEM majors (or wish really hard), we’ll get a pony! We use “STEM” because science and engineering sound like practical, important, useful degrees unlike those useless namby-pamby ivory tower intellectual masturbatory degrees like ‘sociology’ or ‘history’ or ‘psychology’ or ‘English’ or ‘Education’.

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      • STEM could easily be a red herring. Like Roland mentioned in response to Michele, talking about the need for more vocational training and STEM is just a sop to voters concerned about the economy without actually doing anything about it.

        Talk about STEM might have a more nefarious purpose depending on how cynical you are and how vigorously democratic you considered the United States to be. Lots of authoritarian governments focused their educational systems on science and technical education because they were thought to be less political and less likely to lead to student activism. The Russian Empire, Imperial Germany, the Communist dictatorships of the 20th century, and modern rightist authoritarian like our East Asian allies during the Cold War had great scientific and technical education. Focusing more on science and technical education could be seen as a way to avoid student activism.

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  2. So,as the economy changes at an ever faster and faster rate, the most useful form of education is acquiring specific skills that will become obsolete more and more quickly, as opposed to, say, learning how to acquire new skills? Or acquiring skills which will not become obsolete, e.g. reasoning and written communication?

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    • This is the biggest problem with basing education on the idea that it’s primary purpose is economic. Free marketers like to remind people that planning an economy doesn’t work. If economic planning is an impossibility than educated kids to meet future economic needs is also an impossibility. The skills taught might easily become irrelevant once kids enter the workforce, especially for the lower level or mid level technical fields. The longer it takes to educated or train somebody in a field than the better the chances the skills and knowledge will remain relevant. Doctors are unlikely to become irrelevant but wielders might if robotics get good enough.

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      • Milton Friedman made a similar point in Capitalism and Freedom. He noted that vocational training’s benefits are fully internalised by the market – the increase in pay vocational training provides is all the incentive needed to take it up. The types of education that need to be subsidised are those whose benefit diffuses to society as a whole since that kind of education is less likely to result in a higher salary.

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    • There are a handful of skills that everybody, absolutely *EVERYBODY*, needs.

      They’re fairly bland, though. Balance a checkbook. Cook a meal. Screw in a screw. Change a lightbulb. Change the oil. Vacuum a floor. Wash a load of clothing.

      Most of these are things that a parent can teach a child but, hey, some might need to be taught by adults who know what they’re doing if a parent, for whatever reason, isn’t able to pass this knowledge on.

      Beyond that, there are a handful of skills you’ll need to be employable. How to show up on time. How to show up on time showered. How to show up on time and be showered and wearing vaguely presentable clothing.

      Ideally, high school will teach these things.

      Beyond that, there are a handful more things that make someone even more employable. Can this person read a document and learn from it? Can this person write a document that someone else can read and learn from?

      Ideally, college will teach these things.

      Right?

      But now we don’t know what a student is supposed to leave high school with. To answer “to make themselves minimally employable” is, now, a bad answer (it didn’t used to be). Now the answer is something like “to prepare them for a college education”.

      But we don’t know what college is supposed to prepare a 22-year old for. Is it to be employed at a mind-numbing job for 20, 30, 40 years before they retire? Is it to “do what you love” for 20, 30, 40 years? Is it to find a mate who is more than capable of providing a living while one does what one loves?

      What are we learning *FOR*?

      If someone were to list purely utilitarian reasons, I imagine that it would get a handful of people who would say “that’s cruel!” If someone were to list purely deontological reasons (e.g., it’s important to learn how to properly criticize cinematography!), I imagine that a different group of folks would say something to the effect of “that’s not worth $200,000!”

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      • Huh…never changed oil in my life, but i have gone to jiffy lube.

        Maybe it is up to each person to figure out what they want college to be. I’ve heard lots of different reasons from people.

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          • Changing the oil isn’t a great example, though. Jiffy Lube buys oil in bulk versus you loading the cart with quart bottles, and Jiffy Lube uses oil changes as, if not quite a loss leader, something close to it, to pull you in for that heart to heart about the condition of your air filter. If you have good resistance to the air filter conversation, the difference in cost between going to Jiffy Lube for the oil change and doing it yourself is trivial.

            Changing the tire is a better example.

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              • Not to pile one, but nowadays new cars don’t have tires to change. You shove some fix an flat in the airhole and drive it to get the tire replaced…or you have “run flat” tires that are only good for 50 miles at reduced speed…like the doughnut but it doesn’t take up trunk space and saves weight…so the manufacture can achieve their mandated CAFE standards.

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                • I’ve changed a flat in the last year or so. I’m intrigued by this “fix an flat” but I am glad that I learned to change a tire.

                  Edit: “Drive a stick” would have been on that list in the 80’s. It’s not on there now, though. I suspect that “change a flat” will be on there for another decade or so.

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                  • I agree. It’s only the new cars that have no spare. It used to be a full size spare. Then a doughnut, now it’s neither on most cars.

                    That’s why I enjoyed driving a car with a full size spare. Swap it and go.

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        • Changing the oil is probably a good example of a thing that is within reach should it become necessary, via the “read a document and learn from it” skill.

          Which, I don’t think that should be considered the territory of college graduation – elementary school should teach that, high school should increase the level of complexity of accessible documents, and college should add advanced skills like learning from documents containing words like “deontological”.

          For example – I don’t think it’s fair to accept an education system where high school graduates can’t learn from written information, then hire someone with a high school education into positions that require handling chemicals whose MSDS they can’t read. A college degree doesn’t make sense as a requirement for applying herbicides or using wax stripper.

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          • I don’t think its as much as issue of being able to read instructions as having some similar type of experience and the tools. I would think most people could change their oil if they had the tools and proper space. But if someone had never worked on a car before there is a huge leap to start twisting and turning thingamajigs. That is where having someone to mentor you comes in handy; to help you get comfortable and show you some very simple basics.

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            • I quite agree that being able to read and understand instructions is a step short of being ready to execute them – I’m as much able to read and understand the instructions for barbecuing a capybara, changing the oil in a car, or installing the electrical wiring in a new room.

              My confidence that I could follow those instructions correctly, recognizing any spots where the writer left something out as “common knowledge” that I might actually have to look up – that differs considerably among the three tasks.

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            • Not even necessarily. Through 33 total years of living at houses with lawns, I’ve used a few acoustic lawnmowers, a grass whip, a variety of spades, pitchforks, axes, hand saws of every sort, more bicycles than sensible people probably own in whole lifetimes. I’ve never owned an internal combustion engine of any sort.

              I think the principle is more general: Get some comfort with the idea that machines are things you can maintain, and be able to read and learn from the relevant manuals.

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      • The current purpose of university is to enable you to find work that you love and are good at.

        The current purpose of college is to enable you to find work that, at minimum, you like fairly well and are good at.

        Both of them are currently failing a lot of people based on those objectives. But the status quo is that without any kind of higher education, there’s a fairly high chance of ending up doing something you hate, for the rest of your life.

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        • “The current purpose of university is to enable you to find work that you love and are good at.”

          A) when I showed up at college they made it pretty clear that I had to pick a major right away, day one, and I needed to decide on a further specialization of that major within my first year. And I didn’t see anyone else in other majors doing differently–in fact, the only people I saw changing majors were downgrading, changing to subjects of study that were commonly accepted as “easy”.

          B) if all I wanted to do was bum around for four years and try my hand at a bunch of different things, I could probably do that for less than $200,000.

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          • At my university, there were pretty broad requirements of cross-discipline courses. A chemical engineer would have a spot to put a couple of Spanish literature course, a Spanish major would have a spot to put a couple of chem courses.

            I knew a lot of people who went into first year with a course load that could lead into pretty much any major in the place, at most requiring that they take one Summer course to make a long and inflexible pre-requisite chain work.

            I took a bit more than half of a theatre degree, and it only added a year to the comp sci degree I ended up with. My wife did a somewhat similar transition from biology to theatre.

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          • Sorry if I was unclear: I said “find work that you love and are good at”, meaning “enable you to obtain a job that you love and are good at”. Not “find out what you love and are good at.”

            In short, I wasn’t saying that the purpose of university is to “bum around” for four years, I was saying the opposite – that the current purpose of university is to make you qualified for a job that you will enjoy.

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            • There is a significant difference.
              Academic skills are taught in a university (excepting online classes,where chit-chatting with other students takes the place of writing academic papers), while employment requires a different set of skills.

              I believe the true value of college lies in gaining a set of contacts.
              It is always people who do things.

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        • work that you love and are good at.

          This strikes me as somewhat out of reach for a good 80-90% of the population (and that might be low).

          “Work that you don’t hate” might be somewhat more accessible. That might get us to half. Maybe.

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          • That’s probably the case, but it shouldn’t be. Surely more than 10% of the work out there is enjoyable. (I’m one of the lucky 10% in your estimate.)

            It’s a matter of people having or learning the skills they need for their job; the labour market being able to effectively match people with jobs; and employers refraining from deliberately creating a terrible work environment (e.g., Amazon – turning what could be enjoyable jobs into terrible ones through an insane level of stress and pressure). None of that’s impossible.

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      • I found the comments in this subthread to be quite interesting. Probably says a lot about where/when I grew up, but the large majority of homeowners would have been able to do things like interior painting, replacing the toilet guts, replacing a worn lamp switch, re-gluing chair or table joints that had dried out. A sizable fraction would be able to replace a faucet, replace wall switches and outlets, do much more extensive (hidden) furniture repairs. Unless you were rich, you were expected to do those things — you called in a pro for the big things, did the routine maintenance yourself.

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        • The stuff that “A Man” was expected to know how to do when I was a kid included a lot of things that aren’t on there now (I gave the example of “driving a stick” earlier).

          Now, of course, there are things that “A Person” is expected to know and the lists are kind of different above and beyond merely smooshing the “A Man” and “A Woman” lists together.

          I admit to being somewhat taken aback by some of the disagreement about the list *I* gave… but I’m old. That happens.

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    • I’d love for more people to develop the more versatile skills, but I don’t think we’re passing a cost/benefit test as of yet with price, and I’m not convinced that a lot of people who enter college develop those skills to any great degree.

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  3. I’m not sure how the system as you present it is biased towards liberal arts. It may be biased towards 4 year college, but that is a different thing that is more vast than liberal arts majors. STEM occurs at traditional colleges but that doesn’t seem to be a problem.

    I’m unclear about why part time is an issue here. Is it not possible to get loans to go to school part time. It used to be possible to do that.

    A lot of the complaints about liberal arts end up shouting out one “disreputable” soft major like anthropology or philosophy. I haven’t seen it proven that there are to many of those kind of majors in the liberal arts. Liberal arts counts a lot of majors in them some of which have better prospects than others. Is there really a scourge of to many anthro majors dragging down the economy?

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    • There really is a scourge of too many psychology majors dragging down the economy.
      Are you … really… surprised?
      Psychologists know how to engage people, how to make their subject fascinating (and not too hard, you’re studying people, after all). Tons more people take psychology for the “education” and not the “vocational” aspect of it.
      [nb: I do understand that one can have vocational psych from just an undergrad degree. Few people actually do that though. Anyone doing creative advertising, for example, would count.]

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  4. But Rubio is right about the liberal arts in general. Right now, the structures of the system are skewed in their favor, and that skew does a disservice to people: “lower prestige” jobs like welding are stigmatized culturally, and billions of dollars in higher education financing subsidizes degrees that are not necessarily resulting in the development of employable skills.

    I am not sure what it means to say that Rubio is right about “welders vs. philosophers” or vocational training vs. liberal arts education when, for one, he doesn’t even bother to define what he means by a “philosopher,” and two, the idea that these two categories are in opposition to one another is purely the result of the choice to turn this into an overtly political/cultural story.

    What is a philosopher in this context? Someone with a career in academia? Someone who majors in philosophy and then goes on to a career in law/finance/publishing/the infinite number of careers into which people with liberal arts degrees go? Those sorts of details matter if you are going to have a conversation about the financing of “employable skills.”

    Also, the idea that a large segment of the population is missing out on well-paying work because of social stigma is specious. I agree with a lot of what is in this post and a lot Rubio’s specific proprosals, but the overall argument also suffers by virtue of being stuffed into this overarching conservative narrative of everything would be better if these liberal elites would take their fingers off the scale and let real Americans flourish.

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    • I’m also not really sure how stigmatized well paying skilled trades are. Do lawyers and doctors hang out with plumbers and electricians, well actually in my experience yes they do but maybe that is just me.

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      • I think the stigma attaches early, in high school, or even grade school.

        My parents figured my sister was college material, but they settled for me doing well enough as a mechanic. They were a little more proud of me when I became a gas turbine tech (because turbines are more impressive than just cars), but still pinned all the hopes of a kid getting through college on my sister.

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        • I wouldn’t say there is not stigma but it depends on a lot of things. It is not as simple as everybody thinking college=good. Plenty of people are just fine and dandy with their kids getting into a good skilled trade. People with skill are often respected. Does that mean there aren’t snobs, of course not.

          My parents were both working class and wanted me to go to college. They were both proud of my graduation but had no problem with skilled tradespeople.

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  5. I dissent. Again in common parlance, signal is used as sneer against the preferences liberals. No one has ever accused guys in camo of signaling.

    Rubio’s comment is just red meat for team red. There was a similar argument in The Federalist a few months ago which made a similar argument. The Federalist article contained an odd swipe against transgendered people.

    I think Lee was right in Linky Friday. The right doesn’t want college to be the only path to the middle class (and rightly so) but they don’t want to create any laws or regulations that will bring back apprenticeship

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    • but they don’t want to create any laws or regulations that will bring back apprenticeship

      Apprenticeship is not really something that a law or a regulation will be able to bring back.

      An apprenticeship is, fundamentally, a high-trust, high-collaboration relationship between two individuals.

      If you have suggestions for laws/regulations that would help increase trust/collaboration between individuals, I would *LOVE* to hear them. I’m deeply suspicious that they don’t exist.

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      • I’m pretty sure that modern German apprenticeship is far removed from Medieval apprenticeship. More than a few Medieval masters failed to do what they were supposed to during the Medieval ages to.

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          • ,”America needs to become more like a European country!” is less helpful than you’d think.
            Why do you think that. In my humble opinion Europe does some things much better than we do. Medical cost per well factor is first on my list.

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            • My emphasis is on the fact that the solution has a key cultural portion.

              There’s no shortage of things that we should do that Europe (or Asia or Africa or South America or Australia or Antarctica) does (or vice-versa). The problem comes when the things require the culture to change (rather than merely the laws).

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              • We do universal healthcare fine for the senior citizen set. Same with government pensions in the form of Social Security. There isn’t any reason why we can’t do Medicare on a universal basis besides greed and our political system giving those opposed veto points. I’m growing largely tired of cultural arguments because they always seem to be saying “why we can’t have nice things.”

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              • , Culture changes all the time. If someone sees something about the culture they don’t think is good why shouldn’t a person work to change it. An example, what percentage of southern racists would say they hate “the blacks” using the n word today compared to 1950?

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                    • Please understand: I’m not saying “WE CANNOT AND SHOULD NOT CHANGE THE CULTURE!”

                      I am, however, saying that “any solution that has changing the culture as part of its necessary components is not likely to be a useful solution”.

                      I mean, sure. There are a handful of successes. Look at how different we are than we were in the 1950’s!

                      That took 60 years.

                      Is a solution that takes 60 years an acceptable solution? If it is, then I would be happy to retract this particular point.

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                      • , Of course sixty years is to long for things to get better. So I will quit trying. From this point forward I will say nothing when people denigrate gays. When somebody wants to chemically castrate someone who did great things for our war effort I will say nothing. I can’t be bothered by slave labor in Micronesia. Since it will take a long time to convince people that global warming is real I will say do what you want with all those petrochemicals. Its all good
                        Oh hell, since people have been hurting people since before we were people I will say nothing when I see somebody beating the shit out of an overweight bald guy with a beard. I will walk away because it will take to long to convince people not to hurt each other.

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                        • And now we’re talking about something completely different than what started this topic.

                          (E.g., getting an apprenticeship system much more like Europe’s.)

                          Again: I am not suggesting that we do not try to change the culture. I am, however, still suggesting that there are a lot of things that go into changing the culture.

                          Indeed, a law that prohibits discrimination against people (to use your example) is *SIGNIFICANTLY* different from legislation that might help re-establish apprenticeship.

                          I know that you work a great deal of manual labor (carpenter? am I remembering that right?)

                          What laws do you suggest be passed that would make it easier for you to hire and train an apprentice?

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                          • , First and foremost: CARPENTRY IS NOT MANUAL LABOR!!! If you think it is please make me a set of cabinets after you have run a couple house’s worth of three piece crown. If it is nothing more than mere brawn, fix your own goddamn roof.
                            I don’t know a thing about Europe’s apprentice programs. I do know that at one time America had those programs and they were run by unions. Now that the corps have effectively killed unions what we have are interns; which is another way of saying indentured servant.
                            So, one good thing that could happen is to repeal the right to work for less laws and do things to make unions stronger.
                            Off subject, but are you still digging winter?

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                            • I apologize, I didn’t mean to insult your trade. I was using it to mean “work with your hands” (in the blue collar sense of the term) and I wasn’t trying to say “oh, unskilled labor”.

                              So we need to repeal right to work laws in order to bring apprenticeship back, as well as general things that will make unions stronger (which strikes me as a “change the culture” argument).

                              I very much love Winter. We had our first real snow last night. My house got less than an inch, My mom’s house (20 miles away) got half a foot. Denver got positively hammered (they closed the highway between here and there).

                              I wish I were at home wearing fuzzy clothing.

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                              • , Yes we are back to changing the culture. It took a long time to get America unionized. It took a long time to kill the unions and it will take a long time to get them back.
                                “Just because I don’t think I will get to where I want to be in this lifetime in no way negates the necessity to try” is a mutated quote from The Snow Leopard, and one I take to heart. One has to try.
                                I heard about the storm and thought you got hit too. I came of age in Boulder and lived a few years in Fairbanks and I really miss snow and cold and the crisp no humidity winter air.

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                              • I think the issue of union apprentice ships very much depended on how the construction workforce was laid out union versus non union. I suspect in the south it training was not done thru the unions since they did not and do not exist for at least residential construction. Perhaps in the big cities and vicinity in the Northeast and Midwest (i recall some trades going out on strike
                                during the 1960s against home builders) In Tx both the unions community colleges and some contractors run the programs.

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                              • , I don’t how strong the unions are where you live, but here in Louisiana they barely exist. I have worked construction for over thirty years and have met a grand total of two union guys. One was an electrician and the other was a rep from the carpenter’s union.
                                I was never in a union because they mostly did big commercial jobs and I like residential and small crews, but I did like having them around.

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                                • Well, me being in WA, I think they are still pretty well represented.

                                  That’s unfortunate that they’ve declined in LA. I am often critical of unions & some of their behaviors/practices, but I do think they are a good thing, especially the trade unions, who seem to have the largest potential to give back to the larger community.

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    • Again in common parlance, signal is used as sneer against the preferences liberals.

      Are you referring to McArdle’s use of the word? If so, I’m pretty sure she’s using it to convey its technical meaning (not the “common parlance” meaning, whatever that is) with no sneering involved. In fact, this is one area where I think the term “signalling” is perfectly appropriate and isn’t misapplied or over-used to the point of uselessness.

      And even tho I tend to pick on you about this stuff quite a bit, in this case I’m not. She’s using a technical term to tease out some important distinctions.

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    • The “pure signaling” argument states that the value of a college education is in informing future employees that you have discipline and work-ethic, not that you have learned anything valuable from college. If the *only* value of college is signaling, then it is silly to spend much money on it as a society: increasing the number of people with degrees serves only to dilute the signal.

      In reality, there is certainly some value to college beyond signaling, but the question really surrounds how much. If the value of higher education is primarily in signaling, rather than in skill development, then it behooves us to ask if we’re getting value for our money.

      My basic contention here is basically that we’re putting square pegs into round holes by emphasizing four-year degrees. I’m in favor of “liberalizing” higher ed, basically. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

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      • I do broadly agree with you and Will. College is not for everyone and there should be more ways into the middle class than 4 year college. I will strongly push back against partisan swipes though. In reality, I suspect that there are a lot of places where partisan swipes are too strong and destroy consensus.

        That being said, the biggest hurdle is getting employers to stop making a four year degree necessary for a basic job.

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      • If you’re black and I refuse to hire you, that’s a Title VII lawsuit. Even if me refusing to hire you had nothing to do with your race; it’s “i-said-you-said” in front of a jury.

        But if you’re insufficiently credentialed and I refuse to hire you, that’s just fine.

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    • I think “credentialing” here is a better term than “signalling,” though it is the case that the credential exists to send a signal to employers.

      The “pure signalling” argument is almost certainly wrong. But so is any “not at all signalling” argument. Mostly we’re just debating how much of it is signalling and not. And whether enough of it is not signalling as to justify the extremely high price tag (regardless of whether the checks are cut by students, parents, or government).

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                    • The credential itself constitutes a signal to prospective employers that the certificate holder is qualified for the job. A signal, as it’s used economical employment thinking say, is a way to convey information to a prospective employer which that employer couldn’t effectively obtain. The credential signals (conveys, expresses) competence.

                      Then it gets complicated.

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                      • A credential shows evidence of specific knowledge or skills regarding a limited set of tasks. A signal is more vague to the point where every darn thing is a signal making the concept, at some point, less then useful or just stating the obvious.

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                        • I’d say it this way (cuz I have to at this point :)

                          A credential doesn’t show evidence of a skill set (since the person may have cheated on all the tests, say), it signals (conveys, expresses) evidence of the skill set whether the person has it or not.

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                  • I probably would in Saul’s place. If credentialing is a form is signalling (and that sounds right) the specificity adds accuracy. The term “signalling” includes a lot of things that are merely cultural affectations, while credentialing is (at least theoretically) about qualification and less likely to be substantive. If Saul believes that college degrees are substantive more than cultural (and I would agree with him on this point), then “credentialing” is a more suitable term.

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                    • Will,

                      If Saul believes that college degrees are substantive more than cultural (and I would agree with him on this point), then “credentialing” is a more suitable term.

                      If Saul believes that, then he believes that the signal is an accurate indicator of the competence conveyed. That’s all. I mean, I get that he thinks the term is overused, and often used with derisive intent, but that doesn’t mean the word has no useful meaning. In fact, I think if he took the time to learn what it means he’d agree that when used in contexts like this it’s a descriptive term with no judgmental content and that it accurately captures something important about decision-making in a bunch of interesting contexts. (In fact, he’s very big on the concept of prestige as it applies to certain schools (like the Ivies for example) and the preferential hiring students from those university’s receive, an effect which cannot be accounted for without invoking the concept of signalling, seems to me.)

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                        • Jaybird, another way signalling is important insofar as prestige is concerned is that employers are (apparently!) inclined to hire students with degrees from more prestigious universities (all things equal, say) because of the signal it conveys to their own customers/clients. And that’s part of the problem here, seems to me. Eg, my brother in law, who was a lifer at a fairly large company, was offered a VP slot on condition that he went back to school for an MBA. NOT, that he merely took the courses and did the required work (or whatever), but that he actually held the degree. Which is an instance of what you’re talking about, as I understand it.

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                          • My suspicion is that credentialism is a way to maintain the old order. You just want to hire members of a particular bunch of folks for your job? Put a barrier to entry on there that most people not in that bunch won’t be able to overcome. Whoops, turns out that a good chunk of them can? Put another requirement on there for the job. You must have a college degree, 5 years of experience with this 2 year old software, this certification, that certification, and this other certification.

                            Then you can weed out people before they even get to you and by the time that you actually have the interviews, just the guys who have the whole “they lie on their job reqs, I lie on my resume” dynamic down apply and you can weed out the undesirables and hire the guy you wanted to.

                            In 1952, you could have just made sure he had a high school diploma and taken it from there. Now with all of the laws protecting various things, you can’t just hire the guy you want. You need to engage in Kabuki first.

                            Hence: credentialism.

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                            • Credentialism, however, makes a lot of sense in a highly mobile society spread across a huge continent and globe. If i want to pick up and move across country i can present degrees and licenses that can show some things to a prospective employer. Without something tangible to show someone who doesn’t know me or my family, i got nothing but a smile and a handshake.

                              Credentials were bound to become more important when people were able to move all over the place far away from their homes.

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  6. POINT 1: If you want more people to take vocational education, you need to start with the problem that a vocational degree in most fields won’t give you much. A lot of people with college vocational degrees end up as salespeople, receptionists, low-level office support. Are those really jobs that we need to be asking people to invest thousands of dollars and years of their time to train for? Any trades certification that isn’t an apprenticeship (and apprenticeships are a minority of trade certifications) leads to its graduates making a median income LOWER than people with only high school. If you want to focus on vocational training, you need employers to respect it and hire on its basis, otherwise you’re just throwing false hope at people and encouraging them to waste their time and money.

    Another issue with a focus on mechanical trades education is that very few women go into those fields, and there’s already an income gap between men and women (not just overall, but also within virtually every occupation and field of study), probably due to a mix of preferences, social norms, people being less likely to trust the skills of a female auto mechanic or welder, and workplace culture in jobs that are so heavily male. (I have heard quite a lot of negative accounts of what the workplace is like in other male-dominated fields like engineering and computer science. Harrassment, discrimination, etc.)

    POINT 2: As regards university: contrary to common assumptions, only a small proportion of university students study the liberal arts. In Canada only 10% of people with university degrees studied the humanities.

    Business, though, is the most common major, accounting for 17% of university degrees, and I think it’s overstudied. Business seems like something that, even more than other fields, you learn best by doing; the idea that a degree in management could let you leapfrog someone with genuine on-the-ground experience strikes me as wrong. From what I’ve seen, good management skills are about personality, interpersonal and communication skills, and knowledge of the organization in which you work, more than they’re about classroom-based knowledge. But students studying business probably generally intend it to be vocational (whether to get a job, move into a management position, to start their own business), not just for interest value.

    The other most common university degrees are engineering (for men) and health and education (for women; especially as registered nurses and teachers). Engineering is the highest-paying field; health and education are the ones with the lowest levels of unemployment. So on the whole, it appears that university students are already choosing career-focused degrees. Fewer than 1% of degrees are in philosophy, by the way, so Rubio’s fighting a straw man.

    POINT 3: As regards STEM fields – engineering and computer science pay well (particularly for men; women make a lot less as engineers, so the median income of a female registered nurse is similar to that of a female engineer, which may be one factor in why fewer women than men study engineering). A BSc in the sciences – biology, chem, physics – won’t get you much more than your average university degree, and will often get you less: the most common occupation by far for science grads is as TA or research assistant, because there’s very little interest in hiring researchers with a BSc. You need an MSc or even a PhD to get anywhere. The unemployment rate for science grads is 6.2%, similar to the 6.6% for humanities grads. So don’t push people into the sciences with promises of career success, because the data doesn’t back it up.

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    • I have worked around a lot of welders, and I have never seen anyone question the ability of a female welder. Actually, the females tend to be more conscientious in their work.

      Even more business majors in the US. I read not too long ago that roughly a third of all degrees awarded were in business.

      In engineering, travel is important to income at the lower levels. Willingness to travel more earlier in their careers in one big difference between the pay scale for men and women.

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  7. On the broad topic of education as personal enrichment vs. career-focused, I think it depends on the person. For people who enjoy book- and lecture-based learning, university can be great experience, and can teach useful skills. (Whether employers have any regard for those skills is another matter, but the problem with the labour market is lack of jobs combined with employer pickiness, not lack of skilled people.) But it absolutely shouldn’t be the only path to a steady, reliable, decent-paying job, because there are plenty of smart and talented people whose skills and preferences aren’t geared towards classroom-based learning. Even if we made university completely free, as some countries have done, it would still be a square-peg-round-hole issue for a lot of people. University isn’t for everyone.

    Logical thinking, clear writing, and the ability to construct an argument are valuable skills, but not ones that you should be required to shell out $5,000/year (minimum) to learn. Ideally, high schools should teach such skills. If you have to, take a couple of the novels out of the English curriculum and have the students read some essays and non-fiction and practice writing and analysis in that vein. Currently the focus is too overwhelmingly on novels and grammar, at least it was at my school. Having kids read and analyze novels is great, and I’m not recommending removing that, but reducing it a little in favour of more varied material could be useful. Reading a well-written essay or argument helps a lot in learning how to write one.

    Above all, during high school, teach people how to learn. Once they have that, the Internet means that lack of higher education doesn’t have to mean lack of knowledge in whatever interests you. MIT has all of their lectures online for free now. The average person in the Western world has access to more knowledge than anyone in history has had before. Institutions do not have a monopoly on learning.

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  8. At least some trades that do lots of repairs are not offshorable. If your HVAC breaks at most in the future they could figure out the problem, but someone will have to come out and change the parts (until we get a parts changing robot, but it then has to deal with crawl spaces 3 foot high, attics and roof tops.) The same with plumbing and electrical where in the repair and renovate side of the business one has to deal with different generations of how the infrastructure was done. (lead pipe to copper pipe to plastic, to home run style plastic water pipes with no junctions or elbows, or knob and tube to the various forms of romex etc.)
    Of course most of these trades are still apprenticeship based trades today. But why not at least an AA in plumbing or electrician work to make them college graduates. This is available in the welding trades today for example.

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    • Actually, the college I went to at one time offered a Refrigeration Engineering degree. And this is a highly regarded engineering school. They stopped offering it as no one was applying.

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    • A lot of the trades apprenticeships are set up to award degrees nowadays.
      My old union is affiliated with some university in Michigan.

      I know the electricians’ apprenticeship is set up to award a bachelor’s of engineering on completion.

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      • Which means in that case it is not the degree itself, but rather the area the degree is in. Perhaps a modern version of the old idea that nobility could go to Oxford or Cambridge as long as they studied the liberal arts, but they could not get their hands dirty with commerce.

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  9. It feels like this argument is trying to have it both ways. On one hand, supposedly philosophers don’t make any money, so the taxpayers have to repay their student loans. On the other, people get philosophy degrees and use them to “signal” to potential employers that they have non-philosophical skills and get better paying jobs- in which case, they probably do repay those loans. I only know three philosophy majors and they’re all making a lot more money than I am. I guess two of them could count as “signaling” since they work in the corporate world doing things that don’t require a lot of philosophizing. But I know they repaid their loans, so it seems like the problem is with the corporate world.

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    • In every job interview I’ve had (post-graduating), my (potential) employer has made a joke about me being a philosophy major. In every case, I’ve pointed out that I have a classical education and I have been classically trained in such things as Western Civilization and Problem Solving.

      Their smirks turned into less pointed smirks.

      A couple of them even hired me.

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      • People seem to think that you have to do the job that’s written on your diploma for some reason, even though most people don’t. Getting a job as a philosopher: hard. Getting a job as somebody who has a certain set of well-honed reasoning skills: much easier.

        I’ve found that people with a background in philosophy are particularly good at thought experiments an separating out highly intertwined issues to examine them individually. Those are both really tough skills to find and they can be very valuable. For example, in my experience, people with a background in philosophy pick up macroeconomic concepts faster than most people because they’re good at coming up with weird thought experiments and simplified models to check their reasoning.

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    • I feel like philosophy is kind of a bad stand-in for the supposedly useless liberal arts degree. It can be a pretty rigorous and quasi-technical degree to take depending on your sub-specialty, and I’m guessing in many cases is regarded by employers who actually know anything about anything as something closer to a math major than to a comp lit major. Not in every case, but in many. So it kind of screws up our liberal arts stereotype system when the philosophy major actually hits the job market and kills it.

      I think Obama was more on track when he took art history majors down a peg.

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      • In today’s new Gilded Age, Art History is a pretty useful degree. Someone has to managed the investments — I mean collections — of our Financial Overlords. Assemble them, maintain them, help their employer brag about them, inflate their value for when they’re sold…

        The real money’s not in museums. It’s in the private collections of billionaires, which are generally used as long-term investments.

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  10. I’m pretty sure “we” actually do need welders more than we need professional philosophers. But F what “we” need. Anyone who wants to should still try to be a philosopher – if they want to. Because you only get one life. Also because, I think, it’s still harder to go from being a welder to a becoming a professional philosopher than is the reverse. Though both I think are possible, and the difference might be getting mailer (i.e. it might be getting a little less difficult to go from being a welder to ring a professional philosopher these day. But only a little, I’d guess.)

    What I’d like is if these were less distinct identities. I’d like it if we could get it to make more sense for people trying to be professional philosophers to spend some time picking up some welding, because it’s useful (though not really everyday around the house), and because it’s a decent backup to philosophy, and for welders to learn some philosophy, because it’s fun, enriching, and can be very useful in helping to figure out problems in one’s life and the world around one. Unfortunately, the relentless logic of efficiency, specialization, and productivity competition make this make less and less sense (or become more and more difficult, mostly, or unattractive) for people in each profession over time. C’est la vie.

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  11. It’s hard to disagree with Rubio’s argument that we need more and better vocational training; it’s the rest of his diagnosis that’s off. The manufacturing sector in this country has taken a beating not because we lack domestic energy sources, but because so many of those jobs have been shipped overseas to countries with much cheaper labor. The U.S. business tax rate may be high, but few big businesses actually pay it and many pay no taxes at all. I’ll happily sign on to business tax reform if it gets American corporations to actually pay their taxes. Sure, go ahead an repeal Obamacare but how will you replace it and, more importantly, how will you make it more cost efficient. The answer likely doesn’t involve giving more money to insurance companies.

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    • Yep, dead on. The Republicans who talk about free trade and competitiveness while telling us we need more people trained to take on manufacturing jobs simply don’t see how their economic policies undermine the creation and maintenance of the latter.

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      • “Don’t see” is a pretty big assumption. I’m pretty sure they DO see. “Vocational training” is a sop to the concerns of their voters, to convince them ‘something is being done’ so they don’t go looking around at other parties or anything.

        Sooner or later, the magic of the unfettered free market will fix it! They’re not lying to their supporters, just….massaging the truth until the promised dawn arrives. Don’t want the faithful to get cold feet.

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        • Yes, I look forward to the glorious result of these free market policies where a small number make good money in the tech industry and the rest of us work in restaurants, hotels and Uber to service the wealthy Chinese citizens traveling through the US and A.

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            • Rubio’s basic point is that there are reasons manufacturing moved overseas, and those reasons had to do with intentional choices to make American manufacturing expensive.

              If that’s his argument, then it’s REALLY wrong. The reason those companies moved overseas is because laborers wouldn’t (and still won’t, in lots of cases) work for wages low enough for management to keep/bring those manufacturing centers here. On the flip side, enough other people desired cheaper goods that outsourcing was viewed as a good move. And on the other other side, competition between firms coupled with freer trade made the decision to move from high-wage regions to low-wage regions economically inevitable.

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    • The U.S. still makes lots of stuff but the stuff needs more skills than welding. Current manufacturing jobs go along with an Associate’s degree from what I remember. Where the U.S. took a beating was unskilled to semi-skilled manufacturing jobs that gave a middle class life. We no longer really make toasters. We make much more complex things which require some math and computer skills on the factory floor.

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      • was unskilled to semi-skilled manufacturing jobs that gave a middle class life.

        in that period of time after unionization provided more pay than those workers marginal productivity but before containerized cargo made shipping things worldwide super cheap. Also during the period when unskilled and semi-skilled white people were quite angry about black people of all kinds heading north to try to get those same jobs. And that still doesn’t account for the average bloke that worked in a steel mill or on a steam railroad where the work was rather highly skilled, but doesn’t exist anymore because of automation and changes in technology.

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    • I argue with it. It’s the stock supply-side argument — if we produce more vocational-training graduates, jobs that make use of that training will magically appear. It’s not clear that we’re employing our current population of vocational and STEM folks well. There are very few places where you can point and say, “Look! Salaries and hourly rates in this STEM or vocational field are increasing rapidly because there’s a shortage!”

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          • I know a guy whose wife went to a trade school to learn to weld. The program was five days a week, eight hours a day, for five months (iirc).
            She graduated and got a job making $23/hr within a week. Within six mos., she was promoted to a supervisor’s position, somewhere in the low 30’s.

            I’m no welder myself. Dealing with systems of piping was my thing; fluid mechanics. I did get the cert to inspect welds though, because the work environment was much better.

            I’ve been around robots, and they can be really productive. The ones I’ve seen need almost constant calibration.
            Most places don’t want someone standing around checking parts and calibrating the robot, so they will set a protocol of inspecting every fifth part, or so. At least, until they think the robot is ready to go without someone watching it.
            Those things tend to crank out a bunch of bad parts.

            From my inspection work, I have seen that a hand weld is of far better quality than a machine weld, if there is a decent welder on the job.
            A lot of the pipeline work these days is done with orbital welders.
            The pay structure for pipeline work is somewhat odd anyway. Not my cup of tea.

            I don’t see the robots going in to the high-chrome piping. It’s too touchy. That stuff will crack.
            And a lot of systems developed since the early 90’s rely on high-chrome piping to achieve the pressure conditions.

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  12. On a related note: I work with engineers and scientists of all stripes (rocket engineers, materials science guys, MEs and EEs and everything you can imagine). A good welder? They don’t let that guy go.

    Then again, they do a LOT of fabrication. Including plenty of one-offs and test articles.

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  13. “the system as currently constructed places higher education at the top of the social pyramid”.

    The system? What system? This is the US of frigging A! The heart of free-market capitalism! There is no system! There is only competition red in tooth and claw!

    Or, more politely, you really should be very careful when you talk about what “we” want or what the “system” is. This is a country of over 300 million people with a very broad range of values and skills. And Megan, bless her heart, has never been known for her due diligence. She tends to paint with very broad strokes, while drawing on a very narrow experience.

    The problem with expanding vocational programs is that someone has to fill them. So kids will be channeled into those programs and away from (for example) a couple of years at community college. And just how good are high school counselors at sorting kids out?

    Based on conversations with my French family and friends, a lot of kids in the European system bitterly resent the extent to which winners and losers are selected so early in life. They are very jealous of a system which gives more room to grow up a little later and get onto the same track as everyone else.

    What, precisely, is wrong with the current system? Before we start talking about changes, can we at least reach consensus as to what we’re doing wrong?

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    • And Megan, bless her heart, has never been known for her due diligence. She tends to paint with very broad strokes, while drawing on a very narrow experience.

      And yet, the best response you can come up with is to poison the well. You’re not really in a good position to be throwing stones here.

      McArdle is describing—fairly accurately—the signalling model of the college wage premium. If you want to discredit it, you’re going to have to poison a lot more wells.

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  14. Gee, I recall having a similar convo about trade schools and universities back in the 90s. Nothings changed except the cost of attending them….

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  15. First off, I’d like to point out that Rubio is wrong on the facts. Seems like that should matter.

    Second, I continue to fail to understand why Republicans continue to force every g-d thing into a binary model. A four-year degree is good because it teaches you some things about the world, because it teaches you how to learn about the world, because it teaches you some independence from your parents, because it teaches you how to relate to equally smart and driven peers, AND because it confers a degree that will help you in your future career endeavors.

    Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone should want (or, even more obviously should “have to get”) a four-year degree. But the simple fact is that for nearly all individuals, their lives will improve with each level of education they get. It’s really hard to launch a career with a HS diploma. It’s less hard with a 2-year degree. A 4-year college degree and professional degree are both big helps.

    As with many social situations where individual preferences will differ, the correct answer is to help people make their decision, and help them execute on that decision. Student loans are a start, but there is more to do. Thank goodness someone is on it.

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    • I think Rubio’s point is really about philosophy majors, moreso than philosophy professors, and I’m extending his argument out to liberal arts more broadly. How many liberal arts majors become professors? What do the rest of them do?

      Learning a trade is much lower risk and requires less debt.

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      • I am a philosophy major and I worked first in finance for a bit before working several years in marketing and then going to grad school and working in economics for the past six years.

        The conversation about majors is largely a canard or at the very least an exercise in misdirection. The philosophy major from Harvard may be looking at much more remunerative job prospects than the finance major from Boston University.

        There is a cohort of students among whom college attendance ends up leading to high debt and a humble career trajectory, but that tracks much more to things like what tier school they attend and whether they finish or not than to what their major was.

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        • It might be the case that when Rubio says “welders” he might want you to hear “engineers” if it helps make his point a better one from your particular perspective. As Dan says, the point here is really to disparage the value of liberal arts undergrad degrees, and even more so to assert that more “applied” courses of study, whether a four-year engineering program (which is arguably and maybe even inarguably “vocational,” and I bet Rubio would want to include engineering in his definition of vocational) or a two-year metalworking program (but obviously especially anything with less social cache than a four-year college degree), are simultaneously scandalously stigmatized, and (therefore) dangerously under-pursued by young people.

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          • Rubio might even mean engineers when he says that. It still leaves him with the problem that American businesses don’t want to fully employ the population of engineers we currently have. If STEM is the answer, then the question isn’t “How do we get more students to study STEM?” The question is “How do we get American businesses to hire more STEM graduates?” I use “graduates” broadly here — an unemployed 45-year-old hard-real-time programmer who can’t get an interview is not being put to good use.

            I hear people bemoan the fact that China is graduating more engineers than the US each year. I tell them that the thing to be afraid of is that China is finding engineering jobs for all those graduates.

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          • I get (but as expressed upthread, disagree with) the notion that college is a pure signalling exercise with a government subsidized resource extraction.*

            I also get the nobility-of-real-work argument (though not how you can also trash unions).

            I do not at all get how that entitles you to obscure the cost/benefit analysis of college by pretending that career outcomes don’t differ.

            *Note: I also think this is one of those obvious red-meat-for-the-masses GOP policies that you would never see implemented, except to the extent it meant large federal giveaways to for-profit “colleges.” No way are GOP elites coming after the elite university system.

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      • I agree with your interpretation of his point, which is why I chose the link I did.

        The Labor Department tracks salaries for 800 jobs. Here’s what it says:
        Median wage for welders: $37,420
        Median wage for philosophy professors: $63,630
        The winner on pay is clear.
        Even college graduates who study philosophy and don’t become professors do pretty well for themselves. The median starting salary for someone with a philosophy degree is $39,700, according to PayScale. That raises to $78,300 by mid-career.

        I’m not making the claim that trades are dumb (exactly the reverse), but unless you want to defend the proposition that college debt swamps $40k/year in salary I don’t see how you can defend Rubio on the fact he asserted.

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  16. There are a lot of interesting things to be said about this topic, but Marco Rubio isn’t saying any of them. Most of what he has said is so general that no one disagrees with it. Hell, if you attributed the quoted language (other than the boob-baiting sneer at philosophers) to Barack Obama rather Marco Rubio, almost no one would have been able to say you had gotten it wrong. What does Rubio actually propose, how much does he plan to spend on it, and how does he plan to pay for it? Until then, by all means let’s talk about this, but let’s leave Marco Rubio out of it until he actually contributes something.

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  17. Pingback: Christie, Obama, and the Refugee Debate | Ordinary Times

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