Some valuable jobs, e.g. heavy equipment operators, do not require college education.(First published in the Rock the Capital, 6/22/2012)

I graduated from Eighth Grade at Roosevelt Grammar School in 1961.

[pullquote]…we expect that all young people can learn all things, and should all go to college – or at least stick it out through high school. Hogwash![/pullquote]

When I was young, Eighth Grade graduation marked the limit of many students’ academic career. I was raised in rural Maine, where young people helped their families on the farm, and the school calendar was written around planting and harvest schedules, and the fall agricultural fair.

There was no school the Wednesday of Fair Week. Farming was a family affair; young people were needed to help their folks with the displays and competitions.

High school of my youth had College Courses, Shop and Home Ec. Girls went to college to meet boys who were going to college to get a degree and make lots of money. Non-college-track boys learned to fixed cars and cut timber for home building and paper making, while their feminine classmates learned to type, sew and cook.

I was kicked out of a half-semester typing class because I could read rapidly and type about 80 words a minute on an IBM Selectric typewriter. The sound of my incorrect typing style was, said, Mr. Mayo the typing teacher, distracting the young ladies from the necessary work of learning to touch-type correspondence for the men who would eventually be their bosses.

A lot of things have changed in the years leading to now. Machines dig up potatoes and pick corn, reducing the need for young hands during harvest season. Wednesday of Fair Week no longer is an off-day in the school calendar. And a boss may well be dictating a letter to her male secretary.

By the time my children finished eighth grade, that graduation had been eliminated. A few schools have restarted the practice, but for the most part we expect that all young people can learn all things, and should all go to college – or at least stick it out through high school.


We justifiably hold up those who attain high scores and acceptance at big name post-secondary institutions – but we write off those who will go on to be plumbers, carpenters, farmers or auto mechanics, which do not require college degrees but do require ability to read and think and problem solve. We are told that all kids can learn and do all things equally and all should have a college degree as their goal. If some choose to drop out of academic endeavor, we are told it is not of their choosing; the school has failed them.

I am intimately acquainted with a young man who had lousy grades in high school. He read little, and wrote terribly, preferring instead to exercise his arms and brain in the Main Street gym, through the front window of which many young women gazed adoringly.

He was, as an adult with three children, required to go to school to become certified in his chosen trade; he graduated at the top of his class. Without a college degree. Nearly without a high school diploma, though he always was good at doing what was necessary.

Now, at least once a day, he is the most important person in the lives of many college educated executives in a rather large city. He is a plumber, well respected and well paid for his proven capabilities and attention to quality work.

We place great stock in bragging about how many high school graduates have been accepted to college, and we shed floods of tears about the kids who drop out of high school. Many politicians promise a vote for them is a vote to fix a broken public education system – often, of late, by replacing it with commercial, profit-making establishments called charter schools.

There is growing evidence indicating what charter schools may be best at doing is sucking money from the “failing” traditional public schools.

The City of Albuquerque, NM, has an idea. It is called WorkKeys, and is based on the notion that many potential job applicants have skills not reflected by academic degrees or their resume. Some are young, new to the workforce, and others are older and in search of a new job.

Bus drivers, for instance, do not need a college degree to ferry residents from place to place. They must, however, be able to read and find information, and notice what is going on around them. Those skills can be measured with a free-to-the-applicant, 55-minute, WorkKeys test.

Carpenters or welders or janitors also do not need a college education.

The engineer who designs wind turbines probably can benefit from advanced education in physics. The primary requirements to operate a crane or read a torque wrench are ability to read and follow directions, and good hand-eye coordination.

A life skills exam may provide a worker who will require less on-the-job training and will be more likely to stay with the company or municipality long after training is complete.

Requiring a specific education level often eliminates otherwise great workers who simply have not earned, for a variety of reasons, a college degree or high school diploma or GED.

College is not for everyone, and requiring a specific education degree or diploma does not guarantee the applicant will be best for their job. We need to stop voting for politicians who on the one hand, complain of a lack of jobs, and on the other decry the schools they say are not creating qualified workers.

There are, the evening news regularly reports, employers begging for qualified workers. Undoubtedly, many of those employers are turning away otherwise outstanding applicants simply because they did not have a specified piece of paper.

We should be proud of our college-bound students. Many of them will be the leaders and designers of our future.

But it’s time we stopped abandoning those who do not follow that path – and time we stopped blaming the schools because they didn’t.