Did I Choose the Wrong Profession?

Photo: Keith Song

As I do every Tuesday and Wednesday morning, I'm making out bills and balancing the checkbook and this morning I'm opening up a bill from the electrician for $3K for a days work, parts, and permits. The work, he said, was crucial as our house was a little behind code and the recent storms seemed to put a big exclamation point on that as strong winds sent everything flickering and visually pointed out all the exposure. So, sigh, though we couldn't afford it, I signed up to teach an extra class for a month's worth of work so I could pay the electrician for a day of his.

Usually, I don't whine about this and just accept it as American life's big irony. You wouldn't know it from No Child Left Behind and our big push to guilt all into getting an education they can ill afford, but what really is the trade off? Where's that big pay off in the end for 4 years for a BA and 2 for MA? I look at my kids playing and learning their ABCs. Should I push college as the be all end all or should I push the practical, reliable trades?

Nothing puts this into perspective more than buying a house. Suddenly you come into contact with jobs and careers you vaguely knew existed. The real estate agent, the appraiser, the inspector, the electrician, the plumber, the painter, and such. Before this, you only knew about the mechanic. Suddenly you are surrounded by people who can charge $75 an hour without batting an eye and we, the sucker house buyers settling down for a long winter's nap with our student loans and our mortgages and our 2.5 kids, pay up because we have to. I'd love for all the friends, family members and acquaintences that call up and email with the tag line, 'hey, you're a writer, can you fix this for me?' to pay me $75 an hour. But we don't think of writing that way. Anyone can do it, we think--why should i have to pay for that? Clearly we don't respect it as a profession--would the writers' strike in Hollywood be going on to its third month if we did?

My father and an old friend, both doctors, face similar issues. Their Tuesday and Wednesday morning bill paying is much worse: steeper student loans, mandatory conferences to keep their licenses, malpractice insurance along with the regular payments of daily life make the allure of becoming a doctor to make money just seem ludicrous. Teachers pay out of pocket for their own on going training and development long after their degree is earned. As do social workers.

I try to keep it in a happy perspective. Remember all those fun drunken nights in college? Hold on to those sweet memories and those days of international travel. I try to think of all those great books I'd probably have never gotten around to reading on my own if they hadn't been assigned to me. That I can say I'd like to go with the all I can drink plan for two hours in Japanese. Or that I can tell you the finer points of Italian film from the post World War II neo-realism era. That without that civil rights and liberties class I could enjoy the world a lot more from not knowing how it works. Yikes.

But at this point, a nagging voice in the back of my brain says who cares? You should have learned how to fix the sink, raise a bathroom, bring the electricity in a house up to code, and take out asbestos without inhaling. And you should have learned how to charge $100 an hour without laughing.

As for my kids...they are our kids so more than likely they'll be just as impractical and they will sell themselves short. They like to sing, dance, create things, and––now that they aren't toddlers--their interest in the toilet has severely waned. Perhaps I should invest in mini-construction sets for them instead of kiddie microscopes. Put away that Puppet Circus, Diego! Here's a tire jack. Learn from your broke parents. Don't go to college.

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Guest's picture

No, wait, perhaps a ditzy real estate agent who doesn't give a crap that she's driving all over the road and braking for no apparent reason.

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don't even joke about suggesting to your kids that a college education isn't worth it. This is what my parents did to me. I have zero interest in plumbing or household electricity, real estate, appraisals or any kind of sales. I wish my parents had nagged me to go to college. It's so much harder at 40.

Remember that old saying "If you think getting a college education is expensive..." blah blah.

Although I see your point, not all the degree-less have what it takes to become dodgy contractors and real estate sheisters (or even high-quality professionals).

Guest's picture

This computer worker can think of several benefits to Aunt Margie's favorite grandson's chosen profession:

1. Don't have to worry about getting outsourced--people aren't going to send their plumbing to India!

2. Great potential for self-employment--once you've established a solid reputation, go solo! You should have a good base clientele who'll be happy to pay you less than your old firm charged--and you'll get all of the fee.

3. Socializing and bartering with other tradesmen--you'll get to know who the good workers from the bums after working with them on jobsites, and you might be able to trade some jobs with them when you're building or renovating your own place.

4. Demand--not everyone I know needs a web app or database designed and implemented, but everyone I know uses plumbing on a daily basis.

This white-collar worker never looks down on anyone doing a blue-collar job. Many a day I envy them!

Guest's picture

I wouldn't go rushing off to become a real estate agent just yet. With the real estate downturn, many of them are now not making enough sales to live on.

Guest's picture

My cousin is a mechanic. He was never going to be college material in the first place, but he's really amazing at fixing things. He works for a car dealership and makes a perfectly comfortable living with good benefits... very similar in fact to how well I do with a Master's degree. He did go to school for a few years to get some advanced certifications that enhance his marketability, but that's not unusual in the trades (either vocational ed or an apprenticeship).

To be honest, some of us are cut out to succeed well in the kind of fields that require a higher education and some people are not. Our current society pushes that young adults go to college at all costs and that's not the best decision for all of them. Pursuing a career in the trades with dedication and enthusiasm can be just as viable of a financial option. And as long as you can actually fix something, you won't be pulling latte's at Starbucks anytime soon.

As an aside on the medical degree: I have a friend who's an M.D. and his wife has an advanced nursing degree... they did a purely financial analysis of pay vs. cost and concluded that her degree was the better value overall.

Guest's picture

Yes, this is the best part.. Often times I wonder, did I do the right thing by going into "Big Business" and more often than not I realize that being part of the "Tech Borg" is not where I need or want to be.. a trade (plumber/electrician) would provide a fair bit more latitude than by Business Mgmt degree to pursue this on an individual basis.. Many a day I look up to tradesman..

Guest's picture

I am a physical therapist and recently had the electrician out as well. I was astounded by the $250 fee for roughly 60 minutes of work. I talked it over with my lovely wife and we came to the conclusion that there are so many other forms of compensation for a professional that others (that might make more money) might not receive.

At the end of my day, I can look in the mirror and feel that I helped people today. No amount of money can take the place of being able to serve another member of our community.

Yeah, yeah I know you can't pay all the bills with good feelings....but life is short and I would rather feel good than feel rich.

Guest's picture

But didn't the electrician help you? Aren't you a person of the community? I bet the electrician actually goes home feeling like he really lit up some lives, some days, pardon the pun :)

Now, if you figure in things like health insurance and life insurance benefits, paid time off, getting paid on rainy days when a tradesman may not be able to do an outdoor job, other benefits, as small as free office coffee - the tradesman pays about a buck for his coffee in gas stations and convenience stores...

Well, if you figure all that in, you have a point...

But to say that professionals feel good about their contribution to society and to suggest a tradesperson may not? Yikes!

And for the record, I'm a software developer, who on a daily basis considers hanging it all up and opening a vintage motorcycle restoration shop and spending the rest of his days in a puddle of oil and wrenches building restorations for rich professionals :)

So who knows. I think it's all in making sure you can live on and with and like what you do.

Guest's picture
Rick Francis

While trades don't have to worry about outsourcing, there is immigration... I've heard that some trades have been virtually destroyed because of illegal immigrants driving the wages below that of a legal unskilled laborer.
Any job that doesn't have a barrier to entry- will likely have a surplus of labor. So, even if everyone needs plumbing it may not be that lucrative if everyone can easily become a plumber.
I was amazed at how much a home appraisal cost- $350 and the appraiser was at the house for less than an hour. I talked with the appraiser and mentioned that I must be in the wrong business- said there was a fair amount of really dull time at the office preparing the report, and there is an apprenticeship. Still, even if it took 8 hrs total times that is still a very healthy salary. However, I suspect he isn't in business for himself so he probably gets paid a small fraction of the total. I suspect that the real returns come if you own the appraisal business!


Guest's picture
Mark R

There are so many illegal immigrants living in and around nearby Munroe, NC that will do electrical work for about $75/day (depending on the work done) that it has caused most of the local licensed electricians to leave the area to look for work.

Unless you're a member of a union working in the big city, the Blue Collar trades are just as insecure as a computer programmer whose work is getting outsourced out to some Eastern European country like Estonia or Ukraine.

Nope: For my money the best job is a government job. You get paid no matter your performance, you get raises based on your seniority, you have to murder someone to get fired, and when was the last time you heard of mass layoffs of government workers??? Oh, and if you are a Federal worker, you don't even have to worry about Social Security going bankrupt.

Guest's picture

Perhaps it would pay off in the long run to learn some of these skills on your own, while still going on to college and getting a masters degree in Something Spectacular, while still being able to plunge out your own toilet, or being able to change the oil in your car for the price of the bottle of oil and about 10 minutes, and so on and so forth in that manner.

Guest's picture

Ultimately I feel that if you are in a job with physical demands - bending over, lifting things, turning wrenches - there is a limited time you can do that before it all catches up with you and your body will likely revolt in your fiftes. Wheras all the "white collar" jobs you can do for much longer. You can go abuse your body in the gym.

And that said, anybody who takes out a whole ton of student loans or a huge morgtage without taking a realistic look at what they'll earn at said profession - is just asking for trouble no matter what profession it is.

Guest's picture

"Ultimately I feel that if you are in a job with physical demands - bending over, lifting things, turning wrenches - there is a limited time you can do that before it all catches up with you and your body will likely revolt in your fiftes. Wheras all the "white collar" jobs you can do for much longer. You can go abuse your body in the gym"

My grandfather worked the farm his whole life doing all those things you mention. He is 89 now and still doing really well.

It isn't hard work which degrades the body. It is repetition - it isn't turning a wrench but turning a wrench the same way for 8 hours a day for years - which do in the body.

Guest's picture

Earlier this month, (while returning my gown for graduating with an electrical engineering degree, no less!) I locked my keys in my truck and had to call a locksmith to get them out. Although it took him about 40-45 minutes to drive to where I was (and he said he had been stuck in traffic), he literally had the door open in less than two minutes, and I handed him his $45.

I don't think it's fair to exactly count the transit in his hourly wage, because I would have been charged the same if he had been there within 5 minutes.

And I thought the exact same thing - why did I just waste 4 years studying engineering when I could be out there making the equivalent of ~$1350/hr?

Maybe in my later years I can get into consulting, at least :)

Guest's picture

Many people make the mistake of assuming that just because they have a degree, that they're entitled to make more money in the job market. All the degree shows is that they have at least four more years of schooling. To get a degree just to make more money is the wrong reason to go to college. To get a degree because of wanting to obtain knowledge and skill sets (that could be used to make more money POSSIBLY)--that's the right reason.

Guest's picture

I picked my college major on my way to orientation, which means I didn't put much (read: ANY) foresight into the future job market. I was also in a hurry to get out of college, so between Advanced Placement credits and summer classes, I was out in 3 years. I floundered for a year or so, when I discovered that a degree in Conservation doesn't get you anywhere.

I found a job with horrible pay in an even worse working environment. Within a few months, I knew I had to go back to school to get my Master's Degree at some point, but I wasn't quire ready. I had the idea to do a carpentry apprenticeship through a local trade school. My plan was to get my Journeymans' certificate (4 years), then go back to grad school. I wanted to get involved in 'green' building, and I figured if I had the carpentry background, I'd be a lot more valuable as a professional.

I found a GREAT small company, which allowed me to learn a little about nearly everything about working on a house, including some plumbing, electrical, HVAC, and laying concrete. I should mention that I'm female, and not an entirely unattractive one, so I really stood out both on the job site and in the classroom (the apprenticeship calls for some class work). While my boss was fantastic, I ran into other tradesmen who didn't take me seriously or mistook me for the homeowner.

While the hourly rate for trade work may seem high, there are some things about the work that is completely unappealing. I was a union worker, so I had it better than some, but we didn't get sick leave or paid vacation. If you get the flu and can't work for a few days, you are out 3 days' salary. Also, if you have one of those days when you're just feeling worn down, you don't have the option of coasting through the day at a desk. You need to be at attention so you don't hurt yourself with a power tool or fall off a ladder.

My first roofing job was in November (in the midwest) during a sleet storm. That's when grad school started sounding a LOT nicer. Within weeks I took my GRE test and applied to school. My boss was sad to see me leave, but I took some very valuable skills with me. I remodeled my mom's bathroom and years later as a homeowner, my husband and I were able to finish our basement.

I managed to land a good job with my M.S., but I am SO glad I did the carpentry thing when I did. Luckily, I was young and had the guts to do something like that. It's also very comforting to know that if all hell breaks loose, I can always fall back on those skills.

Guest's picture

It does depend on the degree you get. Certain degrees might not put you above (or even at) the salary of a plumber. Other degrees will net you 60k+ your first year.

My dad is an electrician, but he wasted no time encouraging me to go to school. It's hard work, while going to business for yourself sounds great, that requires business skills that non-college grads may not have. Well, at least that my dad didn't have, I'm sure there are plenty of happily self employed trade workers.

That being said, he would have supported me going into a trade as well. As long as I was happy, my parents main advice was to learn how to do SOMETHING that will make a living, whether that be fixing plumbing or fixing broken bones.

Julie Rains's picture

Great, thought-provoking post. You might find it interesting that one of the businesses that helped make Millionaire Mommy Next Door (an entrepreneur and investor) wealthy was a plumbing and heating business.

Guest's picture

This post really appealed to me, as I look at my parents' generation. I worry about the aunts & uncles who chose trades because their bodies can't keep up anymore and it is harder to find manual labor as you age. Also, self-employed or sub-contractor type jobs don't usually come with pensions or offer 401ks. It requires a huge amount of self-discipline to save without the structure already set up for you.

A very interesting post.

Guest's picture

I have shaken my head at some contractors' bills too, but I do remind myself that if I call a small electrical company, they may be paying a receptionist to take my call, office space, trucks, equipment, insurance, advertising, not to mention health insurance, payroll tax, etc.

Guest's picture

Wow, with this post, it's as if you've been reading my mind for the past few years -- why did I work so hard and sacrifice to go to college? If education is, apparently, not worth any more money at all, then is it even worth the effort? I was the first person in my family to get a B.A., and in the past I have strongly encouraged the younger people I know to pursue education and learning. But for the past ten years since graduating from a good private college with a degree in the humanities, I've been really struggling, and not doing much better than acquaintances who dropped out of high school. And when you take into account the changes in higher education funding over the past ten years, combined with the rampant money/credit inflation from banks and the government, which (ultimately) accounts for those relatively lucrative jobs in the trades you're talking about (inflation in real assets and in fixed costs that cannot be outsourced or serviced under the table), I have started cautioning young people to think twice before going to college.

Maggie Wells's picture

Thanks you all for keeping the conversation lively and continuing...incidentally, my student loan wasn't so bad but the interest was crazy on it causing it to be now about 50% more than the loan itself. The MA affords me time and space to work late at night, early in the morning --whenever---it doesn't however, bring in much in the way of cold hard cash that's reliable.

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture

We go to your house!!! we battle traffic, get your materials delivered so we haul not only knowledge and experience but all the stuff we need to do the job to your home. Some jobs are easy but some others can cripple you in a flash. Between flying debris, high noise, dangerous dust and the risk of maiming just about any part of your body is enough to justify the charge. Never mind that work needs to be inspected, OSHA can fine us if someone gets hurt and insurance costs... (try getting insurance on your own and you'll see what i mean) trucks and gas are part of the price.
The rewards can't be beat, since it comes to be about the same as an office job moneywise, however I can drive my kid around town and show him all the homes i have fixed and remodeled, how many of you can be proud to take home a spreadsheet to your kid?

Yes I worked my butt off in accounting for many years and now I work just as hard as a contractor but at least my work will be permanent and not recycled at the end on the month. And yes there is a heck of a lot to learn and keep up so hardly a regular day is more like 17 hours of work and paperwork.

Guest's picture

Great comments to the article above.
Being a tradesmen (I'm an auto mechanic) It's difficult to deal with people who honestly believe it's just $10 and ten minutes to change your own oil.
Spend a few years at it and you'll find $10 and ten minutes can and often has caused hundreds of dollars worth of damage.
Sometimes trades people make it look So Easy.
Mechanics RULE #1 is "If it was EASY people would do it themselves.

Guest's picture

It's easy to fall prey to misperceptions about the trades, as well as misperceptions about contractors/freelancers/self-employed. My husband is a licensed skilled tradesman, my sister is a hairstylist, and I've got a PhD. For a long time, I was the one who made the least amount of money!

One misperception is that "anyone" can learn a trade and that it doesn't take much brains. It'd be more accurate to say that it takes a particular *type* intelligence to be a truly skilled skilled tradesperson. Getting into some apprenticeship programs can be harder than getting into college! It would be difficult for me to understand the sometimes incredibly complete mechanical systems my husband works with, or to keep track of an engaged with the social lives of my clients like my sister does as a way to keep them coming back!

The second huge misperception is that what a contractor charges you equates even roughly to their hourly rate. Depending on the trade, only a fraction of the workweek can be devoted to billable hours; add to that consumables, equipment and other overhead, accounting costs, support staff, advertising, insurance, payroll taxes, retirement, etc. etc.

I think those who are cut out for the trades should be encouraged to see it as a viable alternative to college. It's entirely possible to work hard, do a good job, and make a decent middle-class living (as it should). And with above-average savvy and drive, it's possible to build a thriving business that provides even more than that. But it's no cash cow.

Guest's picture

To follow up on Julie's (#15) comment above, our plumbing business provided an above average/median rate of income. However, I'm popping in to make sure everyone here knows that plumbers are required to apprentice, study, and take required tests before being granted a Masters Plumbing license. This license is required before one can open for biz on their own. I don't recall at the moment, but this can take somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 years to accomplish.

The benefit of 8 yrs studying as an apprentice - versus - 8 yrs in formal higher education - is that you can earn a living while learning (paid apprenticeship). Conversely, with 8 yrs in college, you pay through the nose - often for a long time if you've taken out student loans.

I am a life-long learner, returning to college periodically to study subjects of special interest to me. My credits are all over the place and I skipped the boring prerequisite classes. Since (as an entrepreneur) I don't need to concern myself with obtaining an expensive piece of paper (degree), I can focus on learning simply for the fun of it.

When I was a young adult, I couldn't afford college tuition. Therefore, I sought to learn a skill via an apprenticeship, too (dog-training). Mine wasn't paid like my husband's was, but it was much shorter and I didn't have to pay tuition for it, either.

Great post. My husband and I have often earned more than those of our peers and family members holding post-grad and professional degrees. We've shared similar conversations as this on many occasions. As someone mentioned here, we all bring different gifts and talents AND education levels to the table.

As our daughter grows, our intention is to encourage her unique talents and interests and facilitate whatever education is required to move on to the career meant for her; whether that be formal college ed or an apprenticeship.

Guest's picture

Are you, at heart, a tradesman? If you are, then pursue it! Are you a wordmaster? Then write your magic.

I think my son is going to go to university when he's ready, to study ancient history and the like, and if he's lucky he'll be able to take what he learns into the computer gaming industry or something, blending all of his interests into one. He would not make it as a plumber, or electrician. I don't know where my daughter may end up, she's still young, but maybe she'll end up in retail, organizing all those shelves just the way she likes. So be it! My husband went to college for Computer Programming/Systems Analyst - it was the right place for him. He's got the mindset to work on inventory and to rebuild our computers, but not to rebuild our outdoor shelves... And university was right for me. I'm not doing anything with it, but it is the place where my soul would dance and my heart would sing. I would be less if I hadn't pursued it.

Money gets you far, but it doesn't get you everywhere. If your aptitudes and talents call for doing tradework, Yes! If they call for college, Yes! Just be ready for later. There are always bills, there is always a price.

Guest's picture

I write this as someone who in a typical office job not remotely related to any kind of technical trade.

But the idea that the only thing a tradesman is billing for is the time physically on site is preposterous.

Many people have already listed insurance, receptionists, tools, travel, tons of costs. Plus, they have to save up for a rainy day, either literally, or just when they can't find any customers.

Also, you mentioned permits. When we were getting bids for some work, the contractors pretty much pass the permit cost along straight. Some even suggested we get and pay for the permit ourselves (to get in before a change in rules). They can be pretty expensive, and it all goes straight to the government, the only cut the tradesman gets is a fine if they're in violation.

That said, it's a great idea to learn as much as you can about common repairs so you don't do the equivalent of paying stephen hawking to help you with your physics homework. Some general knowledge will also help you evaluate estimates and bids to see who is trying to take you for a ride, and who knows what they're talking about. My husband worked framing houses for a summer job in college, and it gives invaluable perspective.

Finally, never, never pay by the hour. Pay by the job. If they don't agree to that, find someone else.

Guest's picture

Thanks for a really interesting, thought-provoking post. As many people above have noted, there's no point in pursuing a trade unless you're interested in it and have the aptitude. The same is true of a 4 year liberal arts degree (and, in my case, a couple more degrees after that). Despite the fact that I'm just now joining the middle class in my early 30s, in a stopgap job, I don't regret my education for a second.

Guest's picture

My father was a sculptor. You don't really make a living at that. My mom's counsel to us was, do what you love as long as it's legal and you can earn a living by it. I got a three year professional degree in graphic design, loved the classes, and loved working in the field. That kind of payback carries alot of weight. If your job just means a paycheck, that's 40 hours a week wasted. And it's a shame.

Maggie Wells's picture

with what Olivia says. Though I do wish that our culture was more appreciative of artistic endeavors.

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture

I too was pushed to higher education instead of going with my beloved profession which did not require college. Although I would've finished college at the minimum, I was not allowed to start working and finished law school on my family's wishes.

Then I struggled for years working as a lawyer, a job which I despised every single second I spent on it. Adding insult to injury, all my friends who started working right out of college were making by that time (4 years later), more than I make, and without the huge law school debt. Some had already bought a house and had been enjoying life while I was a struggling grad student barely able to eat McDonalds.

My friends all worked in fields where a BA was more than fine, e.g. accounting, consulting, engineering, police, etc.

Since I have an undergrad in Economics, I did the math for the opportunity costs which came out roughly to this sad truth:

$45,000/yr. x 4 years earned by friends while I was in grad school = $180,000

Total law school debt = $70,000

Total cost for my grad school endeavour = $250,000

So... as I worked and made more money, they still had a quarter million headstart on me. Accounting for the relative differential in current earnings to chip away at their lead, I can reasonably catch up to be EVEN with them in 10-15 years? I didn't even account for the additional expense of paying for my student loans every month which take away the real net income for comparison purposes so it's more like 20-25 years for me to catch up after I pay off the loans. By that time, I'll be close to 55 and hopefully dead. This also did not count into the years of growth any 401(k) or other savings might have accrued in their accounts while I was earning debt.

For a realistic comparison, my college buddy went to work after graduation for the police department. No student loan debt. Got his 2 masters degrees paid for by the department. Bought 2 houses already. 3 cars. All the toys he wants since he made admin and clocks a good 6 figure salary, pension, benefits, all the while on a 4 day compressed work schedule. Did I mention he has no debt? By comparison, I got tons of debt, 1 house, work a full schedule, and barely started to make what he's making.

It's not just college v. trades, you see. Please think it through before forcing your kids to do anything for your own edification.

Maggie Wells's picture

Our kids more than likely will follow us down the artistic rabbitt hole...thus far they've showed every indication. And we will totally support their endeavors...maybe we can convince our cats to be electricians....Margaret Garcia-Couoh