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From the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research


Wrench-wrestling vs. Pencil-pushing by Andrew Peyton Thomas


Are there any Americans left who don’t mind getting their hands dirty in the course of honest employment? Has this land of pioneers and steelworkers become so effete that we cannot even produce citizens willing to assemble and repair the equipment that makes modern life so convenient?


A recent proposal by President Clinton, tailored to polls and political exigencies, suggests so. His call for a $1,500 tax credit for college tuition reflects how the American dream now includes escaping from a career of manual labor. Some who recalled Clinton’s tax policies before his re-election campaign began justifiably cried hypocrisy.


Yet a more substantive objection should be raised, one that undermines the union-made image of Clinton and his party as the loyal advocates of working people. Underlying Clinton’s proposal is a subtle form of snobbery toward those men and women who work with their hands, who actually make things or provide menial, essential services in this Information Age. To these millions of Americans who have not gone to college and do not wish to, the plan is discriminatory, and even somewhat insulting.


It is also economically dubious. Contrast this college subsidy proposal, for instance, with a recent Wall Street Journal article reporting our current shortage of skilled, blue-collar workers. Far from living hand to mouth, such workers are enjoying an economic boom—partly because their potential competitors in these trades have all gone off to college. "A journeyman welder is like a free agent in baseball," said an executive in Wisconsin. These and other skilled manual labor positions, he explained, pay workers $35,000 to $50,000 a year. A good toolmaker often earns $60,000 with overtime.


But remarkably, many young people who used to claim these skilled-labor positions have now been diverted to college, only to graduate to jobs that pay less. Today, while more than half of high school graduates attend college, only 30 percent eventually earn a degree. Lured by an aimless, cafeteria-style curriculum that assures students that all degrees are created equal, many of the students who are graduated walk out with degrees in things like anthropology or fashion design, which serve them poorly in the marketplace.


Community colleges, by contrast, do a better job of relating education to the job market. Their students—roughly a third of them in vocational training programs—account for over half of all higher-education enrollment.


Many jobs that now require a college degree do so only out of professional tradition or expectations, rather than an inherent need for four years or more of higher education. Lawyers are a good example. Most of a lawyer’s skills can be obtained from a paralegal school and a good high school forensics class. This would be far more cost-effective than seven years of higher education, simply to do something as straightforward as reading and understanding law cases and contracts, and arguing a client’s position in court. Yet in order to keep the pool of lawyers reasonably small, the bar association zealously guards its monopoly by erecting obstacles to admission, including unnecessary educational attainments. Similarly, the education establishment and its friends in the media and government promote the rather self-serving presumption that a college degree is necessary for those entering the top professions.


The disfavor commonly shown toward manual labor and vocational training flows from several sources. One is the urge for self-preservation among professors and university officials, who foster the assumption that a college degree is essential for success. But let us not be misled by statistics about persons with college educations earning more than those without degrees. If the labor market is flooded with college graduates, higher-paying employers will usually select college graduates, who will therefore earn higher pay—not because of any need for their diplomas, but because the degree adds some prestige to the employee at little to no cost to the employer.


Finally, many Americans look down on manual labor and view college education as a means of escaping its toils and class connotations. We send our children off to college so that they can avoid the stigma attached to working with tools instead of words and numbers, and of being servants to those whose jobs demand creativity instead of routine. Yet those who enter these honorable, perennial professions deserve social commendation for doing the tedious things that free up time for more "big picture" activities. These citizens certainly deserve better than to be penalized fiscally for not seeking a college degree, a degree that, for them and for perhaps most, is not worth the pretty parchment on which it is written.


If we really want to improve society, how about a tax cut for lawyers who renounce their bar membership and take up welding?


Andrew Peyton Thomas, an assistant attorney general for Arizona, is the author of Crime and the Sacking of America and a Bradley Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.