Redefining ‘Smart’ in America

Colleges focus on teaching critical thinking; vocational schools focus on critical skills, along with a certain level of critical thinking.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, my parents drilled into my head, “Go to college to get a good job.” The implication being that, if I earned a four-year degree, a good paying job would follow because I had secured that college diploma. Recently, I had the chance to speak with some college educators, including a college dean, and was stunned to find out that from within the academic world, the view is different. 

Within academia, either stated or implied, the position of many educational facilities is that universities are places of higher learning, not job readiness institutions. This brings to light a gap in the perception in the minds of many parents and students who think they will be better positioned in the job market by pursuing a four-year degree and the potential of a mountain of college debt that goes with it. Unless a student is getting a four-year degree in a skill such as accounting or nursing, it could be argued that a student (and his parents’ money) might be better served to attend a vocational school that prepares them for a career.

Colleges focus on teaching critical thinking; vocational schools focus on critical skills, along with a certain level of critical thinking. College is considered to be the place where smart people go. What isn’t discussed is that many smart people never attend college. 

Consider the person with a liberal arts degree from an Ivy League school who has taken classes in philosophy and poetry. Their average income, according to payscale.com, is $44,000. Now, imagine one day that person comes home from work and has a burst pipe in their basement, and they need to call a plumber. This plumber, who works with his hands and doesn’t have a four-year degree, has to be smart to able to ply his craft. He must be able to use problem-solving skills. And, in all likelihood, he’s doing a job that many college graduates would think is beneath them. And, ironically, he makes more money annually than the liberal arts degree holder, without having student loans to pay back. According to U.S. News and World Report’s website, this plumber earns an average of $54,620 annually—almost $11,000 more than the liberal arts degree holder.

Colleges often market themselves as building the leaders of tomorrow. There is nothing wrong with that—it’s a good thing. What is missed in the equation is that there is limited space at the top for leaders.  
Leaders don’t have the luxury of leaving work at the office. There is a large portion of our society that simply want to come to work, do their job, go home and leave the work stress at the office. There is also nothing wrong with being this worker. Having less work stress taken home with you might even be considered smart.

As a society, are Americans valuing the right things? There are many who look down upon people who do not have a four-year college degree, until they need them.

There is value in being well read and well educated. However, there are many other forms of intelligence that are not measured in a standardized test. Educator and writer Mike Rose discovered in his research that “the carpenter and the welder are constantly solving problems, applying concepts, making decisions on the fly. A lot of our easy characterizations about work just don’t hold up under scrutiny. Hand and brain are cognitively connected.”

Yet, many parents do not encourage their kids to go into a skilled trade that provides societal value. Most parents think those jobs are outdated and going by the wayside. The demographic data does not support that. 

The staffing company Adecco recently published an article that demonstrated that baby boomers are the majority of the skilled labor sector, creating career opportunities for millennials when they soon retire. In 2012, 53 percent of the skilled labor workforce was more than 45 years old. The data goes on to predict that if more young people do not go into the skilled labor workforce, 31 million positions will be left vacant by 2020 because of the retiring baby boomers.  

At an average median wage of $20.25 per hour for a vocational skilled worker, coupled with the current and future need for a new skilled workforce, its time society redefined “smart.”