A few years ago, a strange phenomenon began to appear in polls that asked Americans for their opinions about higher education: People’s responses suddenly started to diverge along partisan lines. Democrats have continued to describe higher education as a mostly positive force in American life, but Republicans’ opinions of college, beginning around 2015, took a sharp turn toward the negative.
This shift didn’t come out of nowhere. Conservative politicians and media figures have in recent years been making a sustained and often vociferous public case against higher education. Instead of college, their argument often goes, young Americans should pursue a career in the skilled trades. And there is one trade that gets held up more than any other as an example of the opportunities awaiting those who shun college: welding.
If you trace back the history of this idea, you eventually get to a kind of welding ur-text: an April 2014 op-ed column in The Wall Street Journal by Josh Mandel, then the Republican treasurer of Ohio, titled “Welders Make $150,000? Bring Back Shop Class.” Its premise was that in rural Ohio, there was such a shortage of skilled tradespeople that employers were regularly hiring welders at salaries of $150,000 a year and up. Mandel contrasted the bountiful opportunities available to blue-collar workers without college degrees with the dismal prospects he said many college graduates faced: “Too many young people have four-year liberal-arts degrees, are thousands of dollars in debt and find themselves serving coffee at Starbucks or working part-time at the mall.”
Mandel’s notion of economic salvation through welding spread quickly, from op-ed pages to cable-news segments to political speeches. In a 2015 Republican presidential debate, Senator Marco Rubio declared, “For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” President Donald Trump invited a welder from Dayton to be one of the guests of honor at his first State of the Union address, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has visited welding classes across the country, from a suburb of Fort Worth to Far Rockaway, Queens. Paul Ryan extolled the virtues of a welding career at a summit meeting sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. Even Ivanka Trump pulled on a welding mask for the cameras and tried her hand with a torch.
In November 2016, a few days after Donald Trump’s victory, I traveled to Taylorsville, North Carolina, a small town in the Appalachian foothills. Taylorsville is remote and sparsely populated; to get to a Starbucks or a movie theater—or just a town with more than 5,000 people—it’s at least a half-hour drive. Almost everyone in town is white, and only about one in seven adults has a bachelor’s degree. In the 2016 presidential election, three-quarters of the county voted Republican.
I had come to Taylorsville to try to understand more deeply the relationship between higher education, opportunity, and welding, and I spent a couple of evenings in the home of a young welding student in his mid-twenties named Orry Carriere, drinking coffee and talking. His journey through adolescence and high school had been rocky, he told me. Orry’s father had left before he was born, and the absence of a stable male role model in his life had led him into some wild and self-destructive behavior, especially in his early teens. He made it through high school, but only barely, graduating 388th in a class of 389.
After high school, Orry went to work. He spent a year installing locks for a local company, and then another year doing oil changes at the Taylorsville Snappy Lube. Those jobs paid minimum wage or a little more, and the work wasn’t steady or predictable. At 21, Orry got married, and he and his wife moved into a rented trailer. His stepfather helped him get his next job, drawing wire at a factory. It was hard work, loud and dirty and repetitive, but it paid $13.90 an hour, more than Snappy Lube. After a year and a half, Orry was fired for missing too many days of work, but he soon managed to land a job at another steel-wire factory. Then he got fired from that job as well.
It was by that point the spring of 2016, and Orry was 24, separated, and unemployed. He was raising two children with his ex-wife, Katie, and he was living with a new girlfriend named Crystal. Orry had been working hard for five years, and yet he was broke, with nothing saved. At every job he’d had, he told me, he’d been made to feel as though he was disposable, like he didn’t really matter.
Crystal was also unemployed that spring, and she suggested they both think about going back to school. At first, college seemed like the last thing Orry might want to consider. But Crystal showed Orry the website for Catawba Valley Community College in nearby Hickory, and he saw that the school offered an associate’s degree in welding. He had done a little welding in high school and liked it, and that made the notion of college a lot easier to imagine. “It dawned on me that by firing me, they had given me an opportunity,” Orry told me, talking about his former employer. “I could go to college to better myself, and I could find a different job, something that was away from all this.”
When I met Orry on that November night in Taylorsville, he was just a couple of months into his first semester at CVCC. To his surprise, he had come to see college as his route to a better life, not just for himself but for his young family. “I want my kids to have stuff I didn’t have growing up,” he told me. “I don’t want them to have to wonder where their next meal is coming from. I want them to have the chances I never had.”
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One of the many odd things about the rhetoric that posits welding as the antithesis of college is that in order to become a welder, you actually have to go to college. You can learn the basics in a high-school shop class, as Orry did, but to do it well, you not only have to master multiple precise manual skills; you also need a pretty deep scientific understanding of the metal you’re working with and the electrical and chemical processes you’re using to manipulate that metal. To earn an associate’s degree, Orry would need to pass 12 separate welding courses, plus basic courses in math and English, as well as more conceptual courses in welding metallurgy.
His first year at CVCC went well, mostly. It wasn’t completely smooth—he failed his required English course, which was offered only online. But in his welding classes, he earned nothing but A’s and B’s. After that first year ended, he ran into some bureaucratic trouble with his financial aid, he told me, and he took both the summer and the fall of 2017 off from school. For a while, I wondered whether he might just be finished with college. But then he started up again as a full-time student in January 2018.
When I visited him that winter, Orry said he was glad to be back in school, but otherwise, life was not going well. He and Crystal were broke. They had been evicted from their house, and their car was stolen. There was a moment that semester, Orry told me, when he wanted to give up on school, leave his family behind, and start over in a new town. But he kept thinking of his children and the example he was setting for them, and he decided to get back to class, even if he had to take the bus many miles to get there.
Still, at the end of that semester, Orry remained 16 credits shy of the 65 he needed to complete his associate’s degree, and those included his required English and math classes, which he wasn’t confident he could pass. Part of him wanted to go right back to school in the fall and finish his degree, but he wasn’t sure how to pull it off. He and Crystal had broken up, and he was back together with his ex-wife, Katie; Orry and Katie and their two kids had moved in with Orry’s mother.
That summer, he found a job in Wilkesboro, working in a factory that manufactured doors. It was a good position, but the work was hot and exhausting and his schedule was brutal: 12-hour night shifts for seven days straight, from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., followed by seven straight days off. He knew there was no way he could manage school with that schedule. He was earning $16.75 an hour, which was a decent wage, but it was only a couple of dollars an hour more than he had been making before he started college. And he now had $19,000 in student loans that he would soon have to start paying back.
Orry was no longer feeling all that optimistic about the welding profession. 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.
Which leads to an intriguing question: Given the sobering reality that those unbiased statistics convey, why has the wealthy-welder myth become so widely accepted, at least in certain circles? Why does Marco Rubio believe—or claim to believe—that welders make more than philosophers?
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Let me suggest three possible reasons.
The first and most obvious one is that the people making the political speeches and writing the newspaper columns and taking part in the cable-news segments don’t know any actual welders. When you watch a talk-show conversation about the folly of the four-year college degree, you can be reasonably confident that everyone on camera has a four-year college degree. So that is potential reason No. 1: simple ignorance.
The second possible reason is wishful thinking, topped with a dollop of nostalgia. Money aside, welding is an impressive and admirable pursuit. It is a burly, physical job, but there is delicate artistry in it as well, fine craftsmanship with a creative spirit. And an economy in which a manual laborer could reliably earn enough money to support a middle-class family—which is to say, an economy like the United States had not too long ago—would indeed be more equitable, more socially stable, and more family-friendly than the actual economy we have today.
The third possible reason for the ubiquity of the wealthy-welder myth is less benign: If we are able to persuade ourselves that there are plenty of lucrative opportunities available for young people like Orry who didn’t much like high school, it absolves us of our shared responsibility to address the reality of his limited economic prospects. And if you are able to define welding training, in the public mind, as something separate from college, rather than what it actually is—a college major like any other—it provides a way to distract public attention from policy shifts that have made it more difficult for young people like Orry to reach the middle class. Over the past decade, as the make-believe story of the rich welder has grown and spread, public spending on the community colleges where actual young people are trying to learn actual welding has shrunk—in some states, quite drastically so.
In North Carolina, the amount the state government spends on each community-college student declined, after adjusting for inflation, from $5,830 per student in 2007 to $4,891 per student in 2016, the year that Orry enrolled at CVCC. That’s a cut of about 16 percent, and it took place during a period when state tax revenues in North Carolina actually went up. The state has the money, in other words, but state legislators are choosing not to spend it on institutions like Catawba Valley Community College.
What happened in North Carolina mirrors what happened in most other states: When the recession hit in 2008, tax revenues dropped sharply, and state governments cut their spending on higher education. Then the recovery arrived, and tax revenues went back up—but most state governments didn’t replace the funding they had cut from the budgets of community colleges and other public colleges.
Those budget cuts in North Carolina had a direct impact on Orry’s experience at CVCC. First, they added to his tuition costs, and thus to his debt: When adjusted for inflation, community-college tuition in North Carolina has increased by 49 percent since 2007.
But more important: The new revenue from North Carolina’s community-college students has not been enough to compensate for the cuts in state spending, which means colleges like CVCC have had to cut budgets and cut corners. That is why the English class that Orry needs to pass in order to get his degree is offered only online: because it’s cheaper that way.
There is no doubt that Orry would benefit from high-quality face-to-face instruction from a caring and conscientious English professor. But he is almost certainly not going to get it. And that is going to make it much harder for him to pass, and thus to graduate. Orry says he is still determined to finish his associate’s degree, but if he doesn’t manage to do so, he won’t be alone. Right now, only 26 percent of students at CVCC are able to complete a two-year degree in three years.
This article has been adapted from Paul Tough’s book, The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.