The following editorial appeared in the Portsmouth Herald on Friday:
In the movie “Back to School,” a young Thornton Melon, played by Rodney Dangerfield, is lectured by his father that a man without education has nothing. Yet, the younger Melon goes on to make his fortune through a chain of Melon’s Fat and Tall clothing stores with little education, despite his father’s urging.
In the end, Melon does go back to school to earn a college degree, but only as a way of getting his son to stay in school.
Dangerfield was known for his self-deprecating humor. But as is the nature of good satire, Dangerfield’s wit looked to attack some traditionally held beliefs.
One of those is that you must have a college education to become a success and earn a fruitful living.
“Back to School” doesn’t universally challenge the value of a college education, but it does look to debunk the idea it is a requirement for success.
Since Dangerfield’s movie in 1986, there has been what we would call an all-too-slow awakening that a college degree is not a guarantee of a good and well-paying career.
That reality, however, has become more apparent as the cost of college has skyrocketed.
Over the lifetime of the generation heading off to college this fall, tuition and associated costs of a four-year degree have risen, in some cases by more than 200 percent.
This has forced some very tough choices. One of those has been to reassess the value of that four-year degree. Another is to look elsewhere for a road to success.
A recent Seacoast Sunday feature story, “Area tradesmen warn of growing lack of workers,” took a look at some successful alternative careers.
One of those is Steve Turner, who opened Turner’s Upholstery in Rye 30 years ago and is urging young people to take a hard look at the trades as an alternative.
“I turn down more jobs than I can take,” said Turner, who upholsters high-end vehicles.
Yet, he can’t hire the talent he needs.
Al Lawrence, owner of Artisan Electric of Madbury, learned the electrical trade at Minuteman Tech, and says it’s been very good to him. He’s put two children through college, his wife was able to stay home while they were in school and he employed 10 to 12 people at any given time.
Yet again, there are not enough licensed electricians in New Hampshire. In addition, Lawrence, himself 54, said the average age of an electrician in New Hampshire is 51, meaning they’re within sight of the end of their careers with too few to follow in their footsteps.
Another who was confronted with the reality of a college education not always meeting a need is Alan Van Wert, owner and operator of Dufresne Plumbing and Heating of Rye.
Van Wert studied forestry management in college and when he finished, couldn’t find work in his field. His cousin owned the plumbing and heating company, offered him work and gave him on-the-job training.
“I just stuck with it,” said Van Wert, 56, who ended up buying the company.
For the past few years, Van Wert said he’s been unable to keep up with the demand for work.
He has two daughters, neither of whom is interested in being a plumber, and no young prospects interested in learning the business.
He said the average age of people now in the plumbing trade is in the low 50s. “There’s going to be a large number of us retiring,” he said and predicts “a big shortage” that will drive up rates to hire a plumber.
All this means even more demand and better paying opportunities for young people now working their way through school and looking for career paths.
Thankfully there are steps being taken to address the shortage of those skilled in the trades.
High-tech businesses like Safran Aerospace Composites and Albany International in Rochester have partnered with Spaulding High School and Great Bay Community College to fast track high school students into the workforce and into well-paying jobs. And for those still looking at four-year programs, the University of New Hampshire has a well-established track record of working with business leaders to craft education programs already in demand.
Young people today have a world of options available to them and need to be encouraged to choose those that best fit them. In the end, this serves students and the needs of a state whose workforce is aging toward retirement with too few to replace its numbers.