When high school students and their parents discuss the future, most families think that the only path to success is through college. High school guidance counselors echo the sentiment, and school websites proudly boast of high college acceptance rates. Although four year college can result in an awesome career, it’s not the right choice for everyone. Blue collar careers pay well and offer interesting work, too.
What is “blue collar”? I’m thinking of people who do more physical work than desk work at jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree. That job set includes trades people (carpenters, ironworkers, cement masons, pipefitters, operators, laborers, etc.); transportation workers (truck drivers, public transportation workers); automotive technicians; radiological and other technicians; workers in the oil and gas industry; healthcare technicians; police and safety workers; and others.
Careers in these fields pay well – often better than many careers that require a four-year college degree. Teachers, bank professionals, social workers, human resource analysts, lab workers, and other professionals have important jobs, but our society is not willing to pay high salaries for those particular skills. Many reasons may cause the lower rates including high competition for those jobs, a glut of workers with those skills, a profession dominated by female workers where salaries tend to be lower, or jobs with flexible hours. Regardless of the reasons, if you go for a degree that qualifies you for one of those jobs, you will not be able to earn much more than the average for that sector no matter how talented you are. An elementary school teacher today in South Carolina will not likely ever make $100,000 per year in his or her profession – but an ironworker could.
The pay rates for many of the blue collar careers listed above dwarf those of numerous college grad jobs.
Aircraft mechanic ($56,850 or $28.29 per hour)
Transportation maintenance ($65,770 or $31.62 per hour)
Heavy mobile mechanic ($51,778 or $20.38 per hour)
Electronics mechanic ($52,420 or $25.21 per hour)
Electrician ($52,910 or $25.44 per hour)
Gas plant operator ($63,398.40 or $30.48 per hour)
Electrical power-line installer and repairer ($64,990 or $31.24 per hour)
Nuclear power reactor operator ($82,270 or $39.55 per hour)
Elevator installer and repairer ($76,490 or $36.77 per hour)
Police officer ($52,576 or $25.27 per hour)
Contrast those rates with lower-paying jobs that require a 4-year college degree:
Social worker in South Carolina ($45,721 or $21.98 per hour)
South Carolina school teacher ($32,306 or $15.53 per hour)
Adjunct professor ($20,600 or $9.90 per hour)
Agricultural inspector ($43,300 or $20.81 per hour)
Lab technician ($41,650 or $20.02 per hour)
Legislators ($21,500 or $10.33 per hour)
In addition to the reality that pay can be lower, four years of college is expensive. A degree may come with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. And if it turns out that college doesn’t work out or if problems prevent you from graduating, you can end up with lots of debt and no degree to show for it. Having hours toward college doesn’t qualify you for a job that requires a degree, so you could end up with the debt and without the necessary letters behind your name. In contrast, blue collar training requires fewer years and costs less than a college degree; in some fields, you learn on the job while being paid.
So if you are the parent of a high school student or are in high school yourself, it’s worth considering your post-high-school options. If you want to go to college and have the grades and scores to get there, you should go. But if don’t really want to go to college, tech school or apprenticeships might be path to consider. You can learn more about the kinds of blue collar jobs and vocational technical training the South Carolina has to offer at the SC Department of Education website, the SC Association for Career and Technical Education and the SC Technical Education system site.
Kathryn Hauer, the “Financial Lady,” is a Certified Financial Planner ™, adjunct professor at Aiken Technical College, and financial literacy educator who wrote "Financial Advice for Blue Collar America." Her book discusses basic concepts of money including insurance and taxes, financial traps to avoid, how to pay for college and tech school, and the bright future ahead for blue collar careers. Learn more about ways to improve your financial health and safety at her website.