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Welders vs. Philosophers: A False Choice

I was encouraged during the last Republican presidential debate to hear Sen. Marco Rubio talk about the need to "Make higher education faster and easier to access.”

"For the life of me, I don't know why we have stigmatized vocational education,” Rubio said. “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers,” he said, adding that “if we do this we will be able to increase wages for millions of Americans."

Here is what he said in full:

Following those comments, there was a rush to fact check Rubio’s statement about the wages earned by welders versus people who have degrees in philosophy or religious studies. Of course, Rubio is not entitled to his own facts. But, the discussion that grew out of his comments was counterproductive because many people chose to focus on the wrong thing. We need both welders and philosophers – and who says a welder cannot be a philosopher and vice versa?

As the Washington Examiner pointed out, the fact checks of Rubio assume that "philosophy majors go on to become well paid philosophy professors, and that employment in this field is a cinch. This is not necessarily the case." And as we have reported on Construction Citizen in recent months, many students in certification programs along the Texas Gulf Coast are acquiring skills so attractive to industry that educators find it difficult to get those students to even finish the programs before being hired.

Lee College President Dennis Brown told us just a few weeks ago that the industry is desperate for welders, pipefitters, electricians, and others:

"How many do they need? They need a lot. When do they need them? They need them yesterday," Brown said. “It's no secret that you can make $100,000 as a welder," Brown said, but added many people think of these jobs in the way they existed decades ago. These may not be the kind of “glamorous careers that some other folks want, but they pay very well,” Brown said.

At Brazosport College in Lake Jackson, Anne Bartlett is Vice President of Industry and Community Resources:

“We're taking folks who've been on welfare and now they have this awesome job,” Bartlett said with pride. “It's a life transformational thing that is helping our community as a whole because we're putting more people into the situation where they can be good citizens.”

Students being lifted out of poverty through these programs might not ever have the resources to earn an advanced degree. But, being a welder or a pipefitter for a few years might put them in a position to pursue that kind of education if they wish.

Oh, and here’s something the fact checkers going after Rubio’s statement probably had no idea about: A significant portion of students in certification programs at Texas community colleges already have four-year degrees. Those students were on a career path that didn’t turn out to be anywhere near as lucrative as they had hoped. "They have now seen that there's another option for them and that is to come back and get a two-year technical degree," said Brown, the President at Lee College.

At Houston Community College, Kris Asper runs the Center of Excellence for Construction and said a colleague recently told him “community college has become the new graduate school.” One student at HCC, Asper said, has a degree from Houston Baptist University and enrolled at the community college because “she wanted to learn a skill.” It stems from a desire to make a better living for their families, Asper said.

None of this is to say there is anything wrong with a degree in philosophy. It is a noble pursuit. Perhaps Rubio's error was that he set up a false choice in the minds of many about welders versus philosophers. A nation that is economically vibrant must open up as many educational opportunities to as many people as possible.