The national labor shortage has spurred a number of debates regarding education, housing, unemployment benefits, stimulus and wages, just to name a few. One of the debates that is emerging is the value of many college degrees presently offered versus the rising importance of trade schools. The trades are currently in high demand, yet there is a national shortage of those even considering the trades, let alone being proficient in them.
The hardest hit sector for labor shortages is in unskilled labor in the service industry. Restaurants, every variety of store imaginable, cleaning services and hotels are some of the hardest hit. Finding good, reliable workers in the Flathead Valley was a significant challenge even prior to COVID. But now every day one hears of restaurants only being open for certain meals or no carry-out available due to a lack of workers to support the services normally offered. Hotels are unable to open at full capacity despite a busy tourist season due to lack of housekeeping staff. Grocery stores and other big box stores have limited stock on shelves either due to lack of staff for stocking or lack of supply due to stressed supply chains.
After many decades of outsourcing, bad trade deals and becoming more of a consumer, service-oriented society rather than a manufacturing society, are we now feeling the results of decades of these ill-advised policies? Economics experts like Dr. Ron Paul have been sounding the alarm about this for years, only to have his warnings fall on deaf ears. Many are asserting that as a nation, we have completely forgotten the value of hard work and have become lazy and entitled, but is there more to it than that?
Let’s examine the degree issue for a moment. I have a bachelor’s degree in nursing, which has enabled me to have access to a wide variety of jobs, particularly those in management. Professions like most in the medical field require a degree and for good reason. But what about degrees that are being pursued in today’s world that were unheard of even a few decades ago? Art history and women’s studies immediately come to mind. People are going to college and going into massive debt for degrees like this that have extremely few practical applications in real life. I know I’m going to anger some people with that assertion, but really think about it. How useful are these degrees compared to a person going to a trade school and learning to be a mechanic, one of the construction trades or a machinist? To our national shame, how many have looked down their noses at the notion of attending a trade school or learning a trade by starting out as a novice and learning under the tutelage of an expert in their field?
I recently had to sit back and examine my own attitude about this when I mindlessly jumped into an online debate about what house cleaning workers were making to clean houses. I admit my knee-jerk response was to tell them I have a degree and I’m not making even making that much per hour! Are you all crazy? Forget everything I know about supply and demand and the fact these good folks work their tails off. But, but, but they don’t have a duh-gree! Thankfully, common sense smacked me upside the head, and I snapped out of it, but it really made me think. How long have we promoted “education” over practical experience? And how many people aren’t truly educated, but more like “educated out of the brains they were born with” to quote Dr. Bruce West. How many people have degrees that are completely useless while they were indoctrinated in our current failing public education system? A system that squashes individualism and critical thinking and leaves them with mountains of debt they will never be able to repay if they insist on trying to find a job in the field their degree applies to, which basically doesn’t exist.
Am I saying people shouldn’t attend college and obtain a degree? Of course not, but I do think we really need to sit back and reexamine how we view education and its relationship to practical skills and common sense. I would say that from my own experience in college, a degree doesn’t confer any of that. I went to a very conservative accredited college that had a tough nursing program. But I will say, if I hadn’t worked in hospitals during my breaks from school, I would have graduated a clueless wonder along with many of my classmates with no practical experience. What I learned in clinicals was valuable, but it wasn’t reality. Working in hospital settings in the trenches as an aide, thankfully under the expertise of wonderful RNs, and most particularly LPNs, taught me far more than I could have ever learned in class or clinicals.
Notice I singled out LPNs. They do not have degrees, yet they taught me far more than any RNs with degrees ever did while I was a student. LPNs have formal training, but I think the answer lies in their title – Licensed Practical Nurse. Rather than studying statistics, research and really practical undergraduate classes like French, they were learning how to actually become nurses. I think they really appreciated my eagerness to learn. Even though I was an RN student, I was seeking them out for answers and guidance and who doesn’t enjoy sharing their knowledge and experience with a willing recipient who respects them? Incidentally, when I found out my degree would be delayed because I was short a semester of French, to say I was unhappy would be the understatement of the century. Even though the poor professor who had to break this news to me agreed it was ridiculous, I had to walk with an empty diploma at graduation, sign up for French in summer school and didn’t graduate until later that year. The late graduation delayed my RN license, all so I could have a more “well-rounded” education with a language I still cannot speak.
Degrees have their place and usefulness, but with the national labor shortage, I think it is past time for us to re-think how we view credentials. Isn’t it time we start considering a person’s overall practical experience, as well as other factors, such as reliability, a willingness to learn and a strong work ethic? I intend to continue writing on this topic, as there are many nuances to this discussion. I also welcome and value feedback on the topic. Let’s get the conversation moving toward realistic solutions that will help our employers in the Flathead Valley.