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One American Life

I’m a big fan of Chicago Public Radio’s program “This American Life,” with Ira Glass. If I  miss the broadcast on Sunday (WHYY, Philadelphia), I listen to the podcast later in the week. This week’s program, “Wrong Side of History,” included a segment about a young man’s career choice, and my friend Gloria Berenson wanted to know what my reaction to it was. I thought I’d use this forum to expand on my thoughts.

I’m a big fan of Chicago Public Radio’s program “This American Life,” with Ira Glass. If I  miss the broadcast on Sunday (WHYY, Philadelphia), I listen to the podcast later in the week. This week’s program, “Wrong Side of History,” included a segment about a young man’s career choice, and my friend Gloria Berenson wanted to know what my reaction to it was. I thought I’d use this forum to expand on my thoughts.

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In the program segment (“Act I,” which starts about 9 minutes into the hour), the NPR correspondent Adam Davidson talks with his cousin D.J. about D.J.’s decision to drop out of college after only about two weeks. D.J. has decided to work in construction. He presently is working digging ditches by hand, but he has also had experience with landscaping, woodworking, and wiring and says he has very good people skills. D.J. is 25 years old.

From his coverage of international economic affairs, Davidson believes that America’s future as a competitor in the world economy depends on having a highly skilled and educated workforce, and therefore that D.J.’s decision to drop out of college means he will never have a decent standard of living. D.J. enjoys his work (although it leaves him with aching muscles at day’s end) and believes that he can eventually become a manager.

During the conversation, Davidson brings in his friend Pietra Rivoli, who teaches finance and international business at Georgetown University, thinking that she will uphold his side of the argument. To his surprise, Dr. Rivoli says that D.J.’s choice is not the recipe for disaster that Davidson says it is. Dr. Rivoli notes that, unlike the manufacturing jobs that many unskilled workers held in the past, work in construction cannot be offshored and therefore is not threatened by the global economy.

If I had been invited to be part of the conversation, I would have told Adam Davidson and Pietra Rivoli that they are presenting D.J. with a set of false alternatives: a college degree versus unskilled labor. These are not the only alternatives available to D.J.

Here’s what I’d say to D.J.:

Construction is an industry that is sensitive to ups and downs in the economy. It’s no coincidence that the President’s stimulus package is aimed at providing funding particularly for construction jobs. On the other hand, a lot of the occupations that your cousin Adam might favor, such as lawyer or engineer, are also recession-sensitive, and some of them (as Dr. Rivoli pointed out) can be lost to overseas workers. Over the long haul, you can expect to make a decent living in construction–if you do a job that requires some skill.

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You don’t need to go to college to learn these skills. I suggest that you enroll in an apprenticeship program. You’re at about the age that most new apprentices start at. In an apprenticeship, you’ll earn while you learn. You’ll learn on the job and will cover the full range of skills for the craft. You’ll earn a credential that is recognized anywhere. You’ll make connections in the industry that can help you find jobs.

Yes, you will have to take night classes. But how else do you think you’re going to learn blueprint reading? How else will you learn how to make budgets and talk to cost estimators? If you’re at all serious about managing someday, you’re going to need these skills, and you’re not going to learn them with a shovel in your hands.

With your work experience, interpersonal skills, interest in construction, and academic record (which was good enough to get you into the community college), you probably can compete successfully for an opening in a program. Opportunities may not be very good now during a recession, but start investigating apprenticeships now and be prepared to apply when openings become available.

 I should add here that apprenticeship is now an entry route to many jobs besides those in construction. I write about them in 200 Best Jobs Through Apprenticeships.

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