The following article was authored by Tommy Collins and originally published in the Houston Chronicle.
A trend is taking hold in companies across America: Top U.S. companies including Apple, Google, IBM, Whole Foods and others have garnered media attention lately for their iconoclastic move to hire candidates without a college degree.
This shift on the part of some of our country’s most successful and innovative companies is significant in that it bucks a standard that has become entrenched as a truth in American culture: that a college degree is essential to make it in this country. It’s no surprise when you consider that total student debt just hit $1.5 trillion and the average young adult graduates with nearly $40,000 in debt.
This unnecessary tragedy has been fueled by the fallacy that a degree is required to enter the workforce and thrive. This unquestioned assumption is false and is something the construction industry has always known and practiced. It’s about time other industries started to follow our lead.
The construction industry has always been a gateway to limitless professional opportunity for anyone who wants to work hard and commit themselves to lifelong learning and self-improvement — anyone. I know because I’ve walked the walk myself.
In my current position as chief operating officer of a leading American engineering and construction company, many would never guess that I grew up in poverty on a farm in rural Texas, dropped out of college and got my start in construction as a pipefitter helper. For those unfamiliar with the construction industry, a pipefitter helper is the first rung on the long ladder of a career in construction.
I am grateful to the company that extended an opportunity to a 24-year-old with zero professional skills and limited work experience, but the fact is, this is standard in our industry. And, we need to work harder to get the message out that a costly four-year degree may be a practical path for some, but it is certainly not necessary for a rewarding and successful life. Apprenticeships and earn-while-you-learn programs to learn construction trades are dynamic and growing.
The good news is that this path is getting a second look and renewed respect. Young adults are choosing hands-on skilled trades as an alternative to college. Mothers are re-entering the workforce to help support their families and finding rewarding jobs with full benefits. Veterans returning from service are finding their next chapter in life using the skills they learned in the military. Former offenders re-entering society are finding a second chance and a new path in construction.
My first job fitting pipes was more than job: It was the first step in a career that not only led me to become a corporate executive but allowed me to experience the feeling of pride in a job well done and the dignity that comes with being able to grow professionally and provide for my wife and children. I hear stories like this every day as I talk with workers on job sites.
Americans across the country are finding this kind of satisfaction in hands-on work in the trades, and these success stories are happening at a critical time: Our nation faces a severe workforce shortage in the construction industry.More than 500,000 skilled craft workers are needed to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure. These skilled craft workers will play a key role in strengthening American manufacturing and lead our nation to true energy independence.
Optimism about the future has certainly taken hold in the United States as our economy continues to thrive. Opportunities for rewarding careers and lives are available for so many, but no two career paths must be the same. The lack of a college degree does not need to be a barrier to entry. The reality is that work ethic, drive and other individual characteristics are far better factors to consider when hiring. It’s nice to see other industries catching on, but the construction industry has long practiced what we preach. Our door remains wide open to those with ambition and dreams — with or without a degree.
Collins is chief operating officer at S&B Engineers and Constructors in Houston.