This article at Atlantic by Paul Tough made me unhappy for a number of reasons:
Despite the sunny claims of The Wall Street Journal and Marco Rubio, the real-life welding jobs that Orry was able to find in western North Carolina were paying experienced welders between $12 and $15 an hour, which was less than he was making at the door factory. Orry knew that better-paying welding jobs existed, but they were far away and short-term and physically arduous, and if he went out and chased one, he’d have to leave his kids behind. Now that he was back together with Katie and they had what felt like a genuine family, he wanted to stay close to home and be a real father. Besides, even those well-paying welding jobs didn’t pay that well—maybe $30 or $40 an hour, if he got lucky.
This is the other glaring flaw at the heart of the case for welding as the ideal alternative to college. The overwhelming majority of American welders are not earning $150,000 a year. Not even close. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for an experienced welder in 2018 was a little more than $41,000 a year—which was only about $16,000 above the poverty line for a family of four.
The good thing about welding as a profession is that it has a relatively high salary floor. You’re almost always going to make more than minimum wage, even starting out. But the downside, economically, is that welding has a pretty low salary ceiling. Welders at the 90th percentile of income for the profession, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, earn $63,000 a year before taxes. Those are, statistically, the top earners, and they are usually expert welders with decades of experience. The salaries that make headlines in The Wall Street Journal are somewhere between rare and apocryphal.
There’s also an article at FiveThirtyEight by Farai Chideya on the very same subject that makes the very same point in a more FiveThirtyEight-ish way:
Since people with philosophy degrees do many things, one way to track them is by earnings regardless of their day job. According to American Community Survey data, the median earnings of full-time year-round employees ages 30-49 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and no graduate degree, was $51,000 per year from 2010 to 2012. In addition, the Department of Labor (DOL) also keeps statistics on what people earn by job category. “Philosophy and Religion Teachers, postsecondary” earn, on average, $71,350 (and presumably many are college professors with graduate degrees and the associated time-commitment and/or debt). The DOL’s figures show that “Welding, Soldering and Brazing Workers” make $39,570 on average. Two other job categories including “welding” or “welder” have median wages of $40,040 and $36,450.
The first thing that bothered me was the title of the Atlantic piece: “Welding won’t make you rich”. If your objective to to be rich, there’s nothing that beats getting a job with a big financial services company. Of course to do that you’ll need to get an MBA from one of the Top 15 B-schools and those are very selective. It helps in getting into those schools if you’ve graduated from an Ivy school, preferably Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Those are pretty selective, too. And to get into those Ivies it helps if you’ve graduated from a top prep school—even more selectivity not to mention expense. Kiss in the low five figures worth of educational debt goodbye. Or you could be a pro basketball player or a plastic surgeon, orthopedic surgeon, or other top-paying medical specialty. There are fewer than 500 pro basketball players in the U. S. and about 7,000 board certified plastic surgeons. Translation: unless you’re very, very good you won’t make it.
That’s the first awful truth. The odds are that you won’t get rich.
Here’s some more. There are about 130 million workers in the U. S.
|Percentage of workers||Number||Earning Threshold|
|Top 10%||13 million||$118,400|
|Top 1%||1.3 million||$719,766|
I’ll leave it to you to decide which of those is rich. The median income for a family of four is around $55,000. For most people the rung above you is rich. Wages of $41,000 are a nice, middle class salary. If your wife is a welder and you have a minimum wage job, between the two of you you’re above the median.
Here’s the next one. If you gave every person in the United States $2 million, that wouldn’t make us all rich. To make us all rich you’d need to increase what we’re producing by $2 million per year in real terms. Otherwise prices will just rise and everybody will be right back where we started.
Finally, there’s this. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are 398,000 welders and 23,000 philosophy and religion teachers. Being a welder is a growth field and being a professor of philosophy is not. Basically, to get a job a professor of philosophy has to die.
Which of those areas do you think you’re more likely to get a job doing? I don’t give a darn what Marco Rubio said or what the Wall Street Journal says. We need to stop putting jobs that require a decade of higher education on a pedestal while thinking of blue collar jobs as demeaning.
And I haven’t even gone into standard deviation.