Trades surge, colleges sink as the ‘toolbelt generation’ turns to hands-on work

The higher-education industry is having a bad decade.

Some problems are obvious: With wokeness and campus unrest, colleges and universities have lost some of their mystique.

They’ll tell you to “follow the science,” right before they tell you that men can get pregnant.

Violent antisemitic riots haven’t done much to burnish their image, nor have the limp responses to those riots from many university administrations.  

Whom the gods would destroy, they first make ridiculous. Mission accomplished!

Then there’s the economics of it: The reward of college was supposed to be a good job at the end. 

But jobs for college grads today aren’t as good as they once were, while tuition and fees have skyrocketed much faster than wage growth — meaning that many students are graduating with massive debts they likely will to be unable to repay.

Joe Biden is trying to use that infuriating fact to buy votes for the November election via student-loan-forgiveness schemes.

But whether or not that works, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement of college’s value.

Graduates who do get jobs discover workplaces of low job security and increasing foreign competition. 

Sometimes employers outsource your job to somebody in Bangalore. Sometimes — under often-abused H1B visa programs — they bring people from Bangalore to the United States to take your job.

Many white-collar jobs are facing competition from artificial intelligence, too. 

AI tools are already good enough to replace some workers, and unlike human workers, the AI gets better every year.

So what’s left for the next generation of workers? 

Well, when I hire a plumber, he’s not coming from Bangalore, and he can’t be replaced by an AI.

And although he — or she — may be a graduate of plumbing school, there’s seldom a lot of debt involved.

It’s not just plumbing. A nephew of mine recently chose to go to welding school instead of college. 

He graduated after a few months with roughly $3,000 in debt. He’s now working at an hourly wage that translates into a six-figure annual salary. 

And, again, he’s not in any immediate danger of seeing his work sent overseas, or done by a large language model AI.

Younger people are catching on. 

A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that Gen Z is becoming “the toolbelt generation”: To a degree unprecedented in recent times, younger people are looking at the trades. 

Trades are flourishing as college enrollment shrinks, per the report, which found that “the number of students enrolled in vocational-focused community colleges rose 16% last year to its highest level … since 2018.”

Kids studying construction trades rose 23% during the five-year period, while those training for HVAC and vehicle repair careers increased 7%.

“If I would have gone to college after school, I would be dead broke,” one young man working at a Ford plant told the Associated Press in a story about young people skipping college in favor of the skilled trades. Instead he’s making $24 an hour at age 19, with no student debt.

In Iowa, where trade programs have launched a major outreach effort aimed at high schools, college enrollment has fallen by 15% over the last five years.  

This is a big change. 

America’s working class has been taking it on the chin for decades. While press coverage often makes it sound as if workers have just failed to keep up with the modern economy, the truth is the working class’ problems are largely the result of elite-driven policies on trade, immigration and economics.

Those who fell behind were told to “learn to code” or otherwise given dismissive (often bad) advice rather than sympathy. 

But now it’s beginning to dawn on us: Somebody has to fix the toilets and build our houses, and the training grounds for the “cognitive elite” who were supposed to run the world are losing market share.

Sure, people who skip college miss out on the “college experience” — but the “college experience” often translates into four (or five, or six) years of drinking and partying on borrowed money, followed by debt and regret.  

Perhaps a college education once guaranteed some degree of cultural literacy, but nowadays universities regard that sort of culture as “white supremacy” or some such rot.

Why pay to be indoctrinated, hassled and possibly canceled?

Pointing this out gets you tarred as a “right winger” by some. But Barack Obama was suggesting that more students should consider the trades a decade ago. 

He was right, and it’s good that more students are following his advice. 

Unless you’re a college admissions officer.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the InstaPundit.com blog.