LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. High school students are often strongly urged to go on to college. Many graduates actually do. But increasingly, the college students are dropping out. It's difficult for kids to resist the pressure to follow the college track, even when they might be better off in a good blue collar job. In the final story in our series on alternatives to the college admissions game, NPR's Tovia Smith reports on kids who are opting out of college and finding they can still make a good living.
TOVIA SMITH: It's not an easy thing being a high school guidance counselor, getting kids to do the right thing and make mom and dad proud. But imagine being the advisor urging kids to just not worry about what their folks want them to do.
Mr. KIP BEAUDOIN (Guidance Counselor): You had indicated there was some pressures from mom and day about going to college. How are you doing with that?
Mr. WILL ANDERSON (High School Senior): There's a lot of pressures, you know, I mean...
SMITH: In a small office in the public high school in Kingsford, Michigan, guidance counselor Kip Beaudoin checks in with senior Will Anderson, who's decided not to go to college.
Mr. ANDERSON: My mom, you know, she still - to this day she's still not okay with it. You know, she's always thinking, oh, he'll be a doctor. You know, be something. You know, she keeps saying, well, your uncle did this and your uncle did that. I mean I have an uncle who's - he's literally a nuclear scientist.
SMITH: But Anderson says his passion has always been working on cars. And he sees college as a waste of his time.
Mr. ANDERSON: You know, I don't need to take all these extra courses. I don't need math, science, you know. I just want to go and learn what I needed to learn and get out there.
SMITH: When he graduates, Anderson will enroll in an auto mechanic's apprenticeship program with Beaudoin's encouragement. But more often than not, Beaudoin says parents consider such advice a betrayal.
Mr. BEAUDOIN: Mostly what you get is, are you telling me that my son or daughter is not capable of doing better?
SMITH: That bias against blue collar is something Joe Lamacchia says he hears all the time from teachers. He's a father of five in Holliston, Massachusetts who himself skipped college and is fine with his kids doing the same.
Mr. JOE LAMACCHIA (Business Owner): I got tired of the teachers telling me my kids were not going to make it. They're going to fall right off the Earth if they didn't go to college. It was incredible how they really believe that at the meetings.
SMITH: A few years ago Lamacchia launched something of a crusade to encourage kids to just say no to college. He put up a web site, bluecollarandproudofit.com.
Mr. LAMACCHIA: And when you have a trade, you have it made. You know, HVAC and welders - you could take your bag of tools and be an electrician. Even those guys make 50, 60, 70 grand a year, easy, with overtime. And that's in 10 months work.
SMITH: And if you get lucky, like Lamacchia, you can do even better than that.
Mr. LAMACCHIA: Pretty light? No?
Unidentified Man: It's heavy.
Mr. LAMACCHIA: Heavy?
SMITH: In a suburb just outside Boston, Lamacchia oversees two of the dozen or so guys who now work for him shoveling driveways.
Mr. LAMACCHIA: Joe, cheer up, only 42 more. We're almost done.
SMITH: Lamacchia runs what is now a two million dollar a year business - plowing in the winter and landscaping in the summer. He started after barely finishing high school by cutting grass with a borrowed lawn mower and dropping flyers, as he puts it, where the rich ladies get their hair done. Twenty-five years later he says he owns a house as big as any of theirs, and he says he still loves getting his hands dirty every day.
Mr. LAMACCHIA: When we take this equipment in the morning and we dig a driveway out, when we leave there 10 hours later, there's a brand new driveway in there and we spray that water and all those guys are staring at that water because we want to watch it go right to that drain like it's got eyes. And that's what it's all about at the end of the day. Because we did that in one day. Not staring at a screen, doing a study that we'll figure out in 18 months. This is instant. It's a great life. It's a great life. Blue collar. It's a great life.
SMITH: Especially now. There's a shortage of workers for manual and technical jobs from electricians and HVAC mechanics to iron and metal workers. And as demand increases in coming years, economists say so will wages. But they caution, skipping college today is much riskier than it was a generation ago.
Mr. LARRY KATZ (Harvard): It's a bit of a fool's gold to think that you can drop out of school today and do particularly well in the U.S. economy in the long run.
SMITH: Harvard economist Larry Katz says skilled workers can in fact earn good money early in their careers. But their earnings cap out early too. Ultimately, he says, college grads make some 60 percent more than those without a degree. And more than ever before, Harvard economist Claudia Golden says kids need much more education, even to do blue collar jobs like welding, manufacturing or fixing cars.
Ms. CLAUDIA GOLDEN (Harvard): Perhaps they had a grandfather who did perfectly fine and they think that they can as well. But in the economy of the 21st century, they're just going to do very, very poorly.
Mr. WILL ANDERSON (Teacher): Go ahead and start it up and show us some live data, some RPM.
SMITH: Back in Michigan, Will Anderson spends two hours every day in his auto mechanics class, sometimes with a greasy wrench in this hand, but more often with a computer on his lap.
Mr. ANDERSON: You're in drivability. So scroll up and down with this.
SMITH: Besides auto mechanics, students at Kingsford High can take everything from computer repair to electronic and robotic technology. As counselor Kip Beaudoin puts it, this is not your father's shop class.
Mr. BEAUDOIN: This isn't, as we used to call it when I was in school, sweathog math or anything like that. This is a rigorous academic program here at Kingsford.
SMITH: But Kingsford is one of fewer and fewer high schools that offer comprehensive vocational education, a fact that worries Jim Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education at the University of Minnesota.
Mr. JIM STONE (University of Minnesota): Essentially if you tell a kid that we have nothing for you except more science, more algebra, more English and maybe an occasional career tech ed class, and that kid is so totally turned off to traditional academic learning, then they will opt out, and then they're lost.
SMITH: Or, as often happens, they'll get sucked into college even though it's not for them, wasting both time and money. Harry Chapman, who teaches chemistry at Jefferson Community College in Louisville, Kentucky, says he sees kids all the time who he says should have been told long ago that they don't belong in college.
Mr. HAPPY CHAPMAN (Chemistry Teacher) You know, we don't have trouble telling someone you're not suited to be a musician or a football player or something like that. But we're very - for the most part we won't tell someone - well, we don't think you can make it as an engineer or a doctor. It's like that's an insult where it's not an insult to tell someone you don't have a whole lot of musical talent.
SMITH: Twenty-five-year-old Rob McDonald from Waltham, Massachusetts is one who wishes he'd been better advised. He tried college and quit, but not before he'd racked up nearly $40,000 in debt.
Mr. ROB MCDONALD (Site Supervisor) 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. You don't realize it until you actually come out and you're like, oh man, there's some debt for you.
Those last two things, I can't carry them by myself so...
SMITH: Now working as a site supervisor for Joe Lamacchia, making $50,000 a year, McDonald'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.
Mr. MCDONALD: I love it. I love it, yeah. I mean I go to work at six o'clock and it's five o'clock before you know it. The day flies by. There's days I forget to take lunch, I can be so busy.
SMITH: McDonald says he still gets flack from friends who did go to college, but it stings a little less, he says, knowing that he's making more money than they are, at least for now.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.