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Advice on Jobs That Don’t Require a College Degree


In previous posts, I have written about jobs that don’t require a 4-year college degree. Some posts generated more comments than othersUPS, love it or hate it 🙂

One reader wrote a thoughtful commentary on a post he saw on our partner, AOL.

Breaking with my usual pontificating, I am turning this post over this reader. "Jim" followed a path to success that did not include college. He makes a strong case for considering trades instead of college for long-term financial success.

I have changed a few unimportant details (like his name) to make Jim’s comments anonymous, but otherwise the point of view is his.

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Landscaper, Electrician, Plumber: Route to Good Pay

Jim wrote:

“This morning, I read your article on AOL about ‘Jobs that don’t require a college degree.’ You did a good job of presenting some work opportunities that pay well.

One point you made – about a landscaping contractor – included information about how well the fellow had done by becoming a contractor. I think you might have elaborated on this in other fields, including electrician, plumber, etc.

According to fellows I’ve met in these types of businesses, good, well-trained service workers are scarce and earn premium incomes. Potentially, they can do even better by progressing through apprenticeship and journeyman stages and then becoming licensed contractors. And they have the benefit of being their own boss.”

Jim’s Path to High Income: Trades to Contractor

Jim continued:

“Many years ago – 30? 40? – Esquire magazine did a very interesting comparison of the progress of a high school grad who followed this route vs. a high school grad who went on to earn a Harvard MBA. Now some Harvard guys are very bright and can make astronomical sums, but they are stars; there are lots of “average” MBAs.

Esquire’s comparison found that following the above route, the high school grad out-earned the Harvard man into their 40’s before being surpassed. Esquire also made the point that the tradesman had the opportunity to become a contractor and at that point, all bets were off and the MBA could have a very difficult time of ever catching up in earnings.

I believe in all the education we can get – my kids all have degrees and my son-in-law is studying for his MBA right now. But I also think there is great opportunity in non-glamorous work and the Esquire article was interesting and an eye-opener.

It is the path I followed; college didn’t suit me and I flunked out. The path I followed – laborer, carpenter, contractor, real estate broker – works. With partners, we’ve developed several thousand houses. Thanks for the good report.”

O.K., I Have an Opinion 🙂

With the focus on college, parents, teachers, and society in general have lost track of the value of the trades as a route to satisfaction and financial success.

I have always worked on cars. I probably would have become an auto mechanic, if I were a little less academically inclined. Would I have been worse off financially if I had?

Back in 80’s, I drove across country in a 1960 Alfa Romeo. It was an unreliable car, and I did not have much money, so I spent a lot of time begging parts and tools from foreign car mechanics across the country.

What struck me was how many of these independent mechanic/repair shop owners were doing very well. They could afford hobbies like racing vintage Porsches on the weekend. They clearly had an income that would be solidly six figures or better today.

As “The Millionaire Next Door” makes clear, far more people have become millionaires by running a successful contracting business, independent garage, or car dealership, than have by becoming a Harvard MBA.

Like Jim, I’ll still encourage my kids to get a 4-year college degree. However, I also agree that there is more than one way to financial success. For someone who doesn’t like school, the trades are a very good option.

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Dr. Al Lee

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