An opinion piece of higher education vs skilled trade

What is more important; Higher education from a university/community college or a skill certification from a skilled trade school? While both are equally important for certain fields, I would give the edge to the skilled trade simply because the skill would payoff quicker.

Say two people, same age, one goes to a college (X), the other goes to trade school (Y); four-six years later X is graduated and can potentially walk right in a job making six figures but probably has a lot of school debt too, while Y has most likely already paid off the school debt and is considered a master of the art, if they own a successful business, they could potentially be making that same six figure salary.   

Throughout history, society has taught us the myth that higher education is a necessity and is required for a successful life. Skilled work is just labor, grunt work. Higher education is the “be all, end all” in the working world, but when you think about it, the great “architect” needs the great “contractor” to build a home, the contractor, does not necessarily need the architect.   

Knowledge is power and education is everything, I won’t argue that, but the best education and knowledge you will receive in life is beyond your typical “higher education” classroom setting. Skills that you possess and gain from teachers you deal with on an every day basis, outside of the typical classroom atmosphere will define your true knowledge of things and the skills necessary to accomplish them. You can read a manual how to do something a hundred times but you will not be skilled in actually completing the task until you do it 100 times.

Now, does higher education from certain colleges/universities automatically lead to higher employment or better jobs? Yes, and No, in reality it really doesn’t but depending on your social standings, it may. Who you know can be just as, if not more important, than what you know, which means higher education itself, is a misleading proxy for economic performance. Knowledge is power, but knowledge from college is no guarantor of success. Growing numbers of informed observers still consider college and/or university educations a great investment for attendees, but are they correct? It’s debatable.

Many employers have serious gaps between the “elite” educated credentials and real personal competence. That, I have seen firsthand, I’m sure we all have. Classroom records loaded with top grades show much less about a candidate’s capabilities than most serious employers need, or want, to know. Now, while some would say degrees are worth every penny, others would say even top-tier degrees say more about importance of credentials than about a greater capacity of being a good leader. It’s the illusion; you can lack complete common sense and understanding but, because you have this degree it is as if you are now exempt from stupidity, which again, is just not true.

Skilled tradesmen on the other hand are hand picked, recruiters know what they are getting with them because they can convey their skills through presentation and work history, whereas, with college graduates, you can’t. If you look at three applicants that all have the same degree, in the same field, how would you choose the right one? By determining what school they came from? Now flip it, three applicants with the same skilled trade, from three different companies, you could choose the right one by contacting those companies or looking into their jobs much more easily than you can looking at the graduate’s background. 

The formalities of higher education as opposed to its networks of friends and connections may have less value than they did a decade ago. Alumni networks can prove more economically valuable than what one studied in class to get ahead in life, so in reality “where you went” may prove more professionally helpful than “what you learned”. That certainly undermines the “value of education” arguments, doesn’t it?

While higher education itself, isn’t marginal or unimportant, its real market impact on employment prospects is misunderstood. These days you can honestly say time spent cultivating your Facebook/Linked-In network(s) can be a better investment than taking certain electives… think about that.

Education committees have done an awful thing to capital conversations and analyses around employment. By championing higher education as the key to economic success, they have distorted important public policy debates about how and why people get hired and paid well in the first place. They have undermined useful arguments about “street smarts” versus “book smarts”. Treating education as the best proxy for capital is like using patents as your proxy for measuring innovation. Its underlying logic shouldn’t conceal the fact that you’ll under-weigh market leaders. You can look to billionaires like Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Dell’s Michael Dell, Apple’s Steve Jobs, Oracle’s Larry Ellison and even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and note that they are all college drop-outs. They were skilled entrepreneurs. The point here isn’t to declare a college degree unnecessary to launching a high-tech juggernaut, but to see that, perhaps, higher education isn’t essential to effective entrepreneurship and it is actually the skills you possess that will be your guarantor of success.

Policy makers jabber about the need to educate people to compete in knowledge-intensive industries, but knowledge doesn’t even represent half of industrial challenges these days. What really matters these days are the skills you acquire through trial and error and the teachers you are blessed to learn from in day to day challenges. The undervalued capital issue here isn’t quality education in school but quality of skills in markets and quality of teachers in your daily venture. Every person can be a teacher in one way or another just as any task can help you acquire skills but a degree should not be the “be all, end all” when it comes to measuring success because that has been proven to be false, time and time again.

A computer science PhD doesn’t automatically make one a good programmer. There is a world of difference between getting an “A” in robotics class and winning a “bot” competition. Great knowledge is not the same as great skill. Worse yet, decent knowledge doesn’t guarantee even decent skills. Unfortunately, the committees and policy makers behave as if college degrees mean their recipients can write and that Philosophy degrees mean their holders can rigorously think, and that is just not true.

I am not knocking higher education in itself, but you can say I am knocking the society that values the degree overall because it’s just a fact that it is the skills that everyone has that determines how far a job, project or task will go. On paper and in your mind a project can go on forever, but in reality, your skills will limit what you do in the long run. It is not the potential of your project that employers concern themselves with, it’s the reality of it. Look a little deeper and even the brightest minds hand off their paper to the high skilled workers to have those thoughts brought to life. The architect needs contractors to build the home, the contractors do not necessarily need the architect… think about that.

There’s no shortage of “well- educated” college graduates who can’t write intelligible synopses or manage simple spreadsheets. There are doctoral candidates in statistics and operations research who find adapting their technical ability to messy, real problem solving extremely difficult which proves great knowledge doesn’t confer great skill. Nevertheless, you would most likely find their research and their resumes impressive, as well you should, but focusing on their formal accomplishments misrepresents their skill set outside of the academies.

Academic and classroom markets are profoundly different from business and workplace markets. Why should anyone be surprised that serious knowledge/skill gaps dominate those differences? Higher education institutions do decently with transmitting the principle knowledge but, unfortunately, they do minimal in transmitting actual skills. I believe human capital debates and investment policies going forward should weigh skills over knowledge because when you look at who is getting hired, knowledge almost always, matters less than demonstrable skills in the workforce. The distinctions aren’t subtle; they’re immense, ask around.

These hires don’t have resumes highlighting educational pedigrees and accomplishments; their resumes emphasize their skill sets. Instead of listing aspirations and achievements, these resumes present portfolios around performance. They link to blogs, published articles, PowerPoint presentations, podcasts and seminars the candidates produced. The traditional two-page resume has transformed into a personal productivity portal in some fields and that empowers prospective employers to literally interact with their candidate’s work. This simultaneously compliments and reinforces the employer-side due diligence that’s emerged during this recession. Firms have both the luxury and necessity to find the best possible candidates for open positions. Yes, they’re looking for appropriate levels of educational accomplishment but really, what they most want are people who have the skills they need. More importantly, they want to actually see those skills show in the real world through technology, design and/or presentation.

Professional service firms don’t hesitate to ask a serious candidate to show their sincerity and skills by asking them to show how they might “adapt” a presentation for one of the company’s own clients. Verbal fluency and presence impresses headhunters and interviewers, but the ability to show one’s professional skills increasingly matters more. This is part of the vast structural shift in the human capital marketplace worldwide. Firms have the incentive for far more selective hires like project managers and professionals who also have the bandwidth and, want to showcase their skills.

You won’t learn skill in most typical classroom atmospheres and you won’t gain skills through Linked-In or Facebook but you will through trial and error and paying attention to those in your daily ventures that already possess those skills. Skills are how human capital markets will become more efficient and effective in the future.

Given our recent state of affairs, there has been a lot of talk about free college tuition but what about trade-schools? There are a lot of people out there with degrees in fields they don’t intend to utilize, and therefor will not get paid for it, but you can’t find many, if any, that have gone to trade schools and not used their skills to make a paycheck. With a skilled trade, you have a job for life. With a degree, you have a base set salary, but no guarantee someone will pay you it.

In the battle of higher education vs skills, I will always give the edge to skills. Think about this; a master welder or mechanic can make as much as a doctor with about half the schooling and another good example is trade-schools tend to be much cheaper than colleges and universities.