Opting Out of College for a Blue-Collar Life

This is the sixth report in a seven-part series.

Joe Lamacchia

hide captionJoe Lamacchia has a Web site – Bluecollarandproudofit.com — that encourages students who feel that college isn't right for them. Lamacchia himself skipped college. He now runs a $2 million a year landscaping business.

Tovia Smith, NPR

In a small office at the public high school in Kingsford, Mich., guidance counselor Kip Beaudoin is doing what many parents might consider treachery: He's encouraging a student to just say "no" to college.

Senior Will Anderson tells Beaudoin that his parents are pressuring him to apply — that his mother "is always thinking, 'Be a doctor, be something.'"

But Anderson says his passion has always been working on cars. He sees college as a waste of time.

"I don't need math, science. I just need to learn what I need to learn and get out there," he says.

In recent decades, the number of U.S. high-school graduates who begin college has risen dramatically. But so has the number of college dropouts. Beaudoin is one of many educators who think these figures reflect a growing pressure on students to follow the college track, even when they might be better suited to other options.

When Anderson graduates from high school, he plans to enroll in an automobile mechanics' apprentice program, with Beaudoin's encouragement. But more often than not, Beaudoin says, parents consider such advice a betrayal.

"Mostly what you get is, 'Are you telling me my son or daughter is not capable of doing better?'" Beaudoin says.

The Blue-Collar Option

Joe Lamacchia, a father of five from Holliston, Mass., says teachers often made it sound as if his children would "fall right off the Earth if they didn't go to college."

"It was incredible how they really believed that," he says.

Lamacchia himself skipped college, and it's fine by him if his children do, too. A few years ago, Lamacchia launched something of a crusade to encourage youths who want to skip college; he even has a Web site.

"When you have a trade, you have it made," he says, noting that skilled workers, such as electricians or welders, can easily earn as much as $70,000 a year with overtime.

After barely finishing high school, Lamacchia started cutting grass with a borrowed mower. Today, he runs a $2 million a year landscaping and driveway-paving business.

"It's a great life — blue collar," he says.

The Risks of Bypassing College

Currently, there's a shortage of blue-collar workers for manual and technical jobs — from electricians to heating and air-conditioning mechanics to iron and metal workers. As demand for these skills increases in coming years, economists say wages will, too.

But economists also caution that skipping college today is much riskier than it was a generation ago.

"It's a bit of fool's gold to think that you can drop out of school today and think that you can do particularly well in the U.S. economy in the long run," says Harvard economist Larry Katz.

Katz says skilled workers can earn good wages early in their careers, but their earnings cap out early, too. Ultimately, he says, college graduates will make about 60 percent more than those without a degree.

Harvard economist Claudia Golden adds that, more than ever before, students need more education and more highly technical computer skills to perform even blue-collar jobs such as welding, manufacturing and fixing cars.

"Perhaps they had a grandfather who did perfectly fine," she says, "and they think they can as well. But in the economy of the 21st century, they're going to do very, very poorly."

College a Costly Mistake for Some

At Kingsford High, Will Anderson spends two hours every day in an automobile mechanics class that includes training in the latest computer technology. But fewer high schools offer comprehensive vocational education anymore.

Still, Harry Chapman, who teaches chemistry at Jefferson Community College in Louisville, Ky., says he often encounters students who should have been told long ago that they don't belong in college.

"We don't have trouble telling someone they're not suited to be a musician or football player or something like that," Chapman says. "But for the most part, we won't tell someone [that] we don't think they can make it as a doctor or an engineer. It's like an insult."

Rob MacDonald, 25, from Waltham, Mass., wishes he had been better advised. He tried college, then quit — but not before racking up nearly $40,000 in debt.

"You don't realize it at the time, when you're going to school, that you're going to have so much debt when you're done," he says. "You don't realize it until you come out."

MacDonald now works as a site supervisor for Joe Lamacchia, making $50,000 a year. He's almost done paying off his student loans. And instead of suffering through sociology class, he says he now looks forward to what he does every day.

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