Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of a Career

When sitting around a card table playing five-card stud with a group of men — the youngest of whom is more than twice your age — the best thing for a young “whippersnapper” to do is to listen. When I found myself in that situation earlier this week, that is exactly what I did. I listened as Korean and Vietnam War veterans discussed the state of everything from country music to the federal tax code. For the most part, the rhetoric wasn’t anything that couldn’t be heard by turning the television to any cable news network, but then, a man named George said something that struck me.

George owns a flooring company in northern Virginia and for most of his life the company was successful. As George’s chip stack and the bottle of Gentleman Jack at his right hand dwindled to near extinction, he looked over to me and asked me if I was interested in laying floors. As it turns out, George’s company is losing money. He has to turn down lucrative jobs because he can’t find employees to lay the flooring. 

Later that night I began to ask myself why it was that George couldn’t find an abundance of people willing to lay floors (and make good money doing it) in such a rough economy. With unemployment rates hovering around 8% (and 16% for young people), shouldn’t there be people jumping at the opportunity? The answer I keep coming back to is a fundamental problem in the way we as a society educate our youth.

From the time children enter preschool until they are seniors in high school, they are told that the only way to succeed in life is to go to college. News reports lament the lower U.S. world ranking in “attainment of a college degree.” While college can be a great experience and open many doors, not everyone needs or wants to go there. Just as I will most likely never be able to rebuild a carburetor or make a rocking chair, others will never be able to or will never want to be able to research and write a well-thought-out thesis paper. And that’s not a bad thing — in fact, it’s just the opposite.

Unfortunately, much of our society has convinced young people that they are failures if they don’t go to college. As a result, many will end up going to college and amassing massive student loan debts to appease their parents and teachers only to find that their degree in underwater basket weaving is completely useless in what they really want to do. There is also a social stigma placed on anyone who wants to work with their hands, which is why my old pal George can’t find anyone who wants to lay floors.

It is time that we as a society remove the social stigma placed on those who don’t go to college or who work in labor and industry. Instead of forcing students who have no interest in getting a degree to learn how to write fifty-page research papers, we should have technical classes, career academies, and apprenticeship programs which give them a head start on learning a skill or trade that they can and will be successful doing. Our current system is only raising the unemployment rate, hurting businesses, saddling young people with debt, and generally wreaking havoc on the economy rather than simply letting the market work.

It is high time we give students the liberty to choose their own path in life and stop forcing them down a path that may lead to nowhere for them.  

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