woman construction worker, trade blue collar labor liberal arts degree

Photo via Lisa F. Young/Shutterstock (Licensed)

Now is the time to forsake that liberal arts degree for skilled labor

Sick of being a starving artist in the gig economy? Construction workers make up to six figures without working year-round.


Katie Fustich


In high schools across the United States, students who succeed in the classroom and on standardized tests are often shepherded directly from their AP biology class into the drafty halls of the liberal arts college of their choosing. It doesn’t matter what this student ultimately decides to pursue—simply attending college is the goal of anyone whose GPA or extracurricular activities show a certain level of competence for the educational system.

Meanwhile, students who don’t stack up on the SAT, or whose socio-economic backgrounds are deemed less valuable (or who are less likely to shell out $60,000 a year for a poetry degree), are often subtly dissuaded from thinking of college as an option. For some, higher education has never been part of their family’s experience; perhaps some are encouraged to pursue a family trade, like carpentry or construction. For others, though, it’s the pressures from family, peers, and guidance counselors that make the decision for them. This early evaluation of our students reveals a complicated relationship between a child’s academic performance, social status, and future career—a relationship that blurs the lines between fostering intelligence and stereotyping class.

The fact that the “high achievers” in high school are persuaded into academia creates an ironic reality: In 2017, those who are encouraged into skilled trade labor are more likely to end up with long-term career prospects, benefits like health insurance, and a codified set of worker’s rights. Though we tend to think of a computer science degree being the gold standard in tech, companies like Siemens have emphasized how specialized vocational training is actually the key to succeeding in the future of the technology field. And you may scoff at being a sanitation worker, but some start at $80,000. 

“Prestigious” or not, trade labor—and the standardization and unionization of such—has the potential to act as a sweeping solution for many millennial’s career woes. But our perceptions of the value and purpose of work, combined with the relatively new phenomenon of commercializing creative labor en masse, remains a firm blockade to a more liberated understanding of what it means to successfully support oneself in a society that’s unwaveringly capitalist.

Millennial’s misconceptions about trade labor

Though there will always be high school guidance counselors determined to fill quotas of students en route to a life of carpentry, there is undeniable evidence that millennials, in general, are turning away from trade labor—despite school counselors’ fiercest foisting of the technical college pamphlet upon those deemed “underachievers.”

After years of erratic growth since the 1940s, statistics from the early 2000s reveal a stark drop-off of 15 percent in the number of 16 to 34-year-olds entering a trade-based profession. While the 16 to 24-year-old fraction of that demographic is actually on the rise in the trade labor market, they still comprise less than 15 percent of the total workforce. Laborers 65 and over, though, have never been more eager for work, which is eye-opening considering we just assume baby boomers are making arrangements for retirement. (In case you were wondering, union pensions help construction workers retire at an average age of 61.)

A 2016 survey about career planning revealed the depth of negativity young people associate with trade labor and construction work, in particular. Out of 2,001 high school students surveyed, 43 percent declared they would never consider working in construction, no matter how high the compensation. 21 percent said they may consider a labor job if the pay was over $100,000 a year. Yet another question on the survey, which asked students how much they believe construction workers earn annually, reveals that many young people have little to no concept of what the trade labor industry actually entails.

In New York City, the average salary for a construction worker is more than $76,000; for a plumber, $70,000. Electricians in Chicago can rake in $71,000 a year (these averages are skewed by the fact that many non-unionized workers earn less—while many of a union’s highly skilled members can earn well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars each year). On the flip side, the average English or sociology graduate with zero to five years of experience earns an average of just $39,000 a year, according to PayScale Inc.—and that’s if you’re employed. Researchers from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that in 2016 more than 50 percent of people who majored in the performing arts, anthropology, art history, history, communications, political science, sociology, philosophy, psychology, and international affairs were underemployed.

In addition to the presumed low pay, students from the career-planning survey also cited a distaste for physical labor, a perceived difficulty of the work, and a desire for an office job as the core factors for shirking skilled labor. Here’s the funny thing, though: Statistics show that the bulk of millennials work in the retail and service industries. These notoriously low-paying, hourly positions are seemingly intended for high school and college-age workers under the auspice they might have the familial support to live on a wage of $11.50 or less.

Even more ironically, retail and service jobs are likely to be as physically demanding as skilled labor work: standing for long hours, moving and carrying heavy items, climbing stairs repeatedly throughout the day. This doesn’t even account for the emotional burden of dealing with condescending customers and clients or being marked for value in the form of a tip. Of course, one central difference between retail and trade work is the fact that retail workers are unlikely to have any benefits whatsoever. Health insurance, sick days, and maternity leave are laughable concepts when companies give employees slightly under 40 hours of work a week to ensure they don’t have to legally provide benefits.

For many young people, retail and service work is perceived as a means to an end—a way to pay the rent without becoming too invested in the work, often for the purpose of pursuing more tenuous passions in the arts, academic, or non-profit sectors.

In lieu of the notoriously exploitative retail and restaurant industries, it’s curious how many creatives fail to consider the pursuit of a trade. Skilled labor jobs can undoubtedly provide a larger (or at least more consistent) income, in addition to allowing for the continued flexibility many artists desire. Status, undoubtedly, molds the reasoning for choosing a bartending position over plumbing work. It is socially acceptable to call yourself a starving artist if you wait tables, but if you take a real job as a carpenter, suddenly you’re no longer an artist. “Carpenter” is the job that defines you.

Career and identity: Can they be separated?

Despite the bubble, more young people than ever are pursuing careers in the arts, philanthropy, and higher education. On one hand, this trend speaks to the truly beautiful and oft-mocked idealism of today’s youth. At the same time, we exist in an age where the climax of Western Capitalism implies that your chosen career path is inextricably tied to your very soul. What you do for the sake of an income—or survival in this very type of society, is automatically assumed to be an indication of who you are on a deeper level.

Author, activist, and organizer Sherry Wolf notes how, “Under capitalism, if your work does not bring sufficient financial gain to sustain yourself and your family, you are diminished in value and punished severely by almost all the institutions of our society—from the cops and courts to schools and landlords.”

“I think it’s inevitable that people under capitalism are compelled to have their identity intertwined with their career or job,” Wolf says. “Employed nurses and McDonald’s workers are generally paid vastly different sums and accorded different levels of respect from institutions and, too often, others. In fact, nurses are thought to have careers, not McDonald’s workers.”

Because of this mentality, society and the economy are heavily fractured. There are those with the means and connections to attain high-paying and highly respected professions like doctor and lawyer, who can efficiently become content with their career identity. There are those who are creative, and thus feel compelled to transform their innermost passions into their primary means of living to be, if not monetarily fulfilled, then spiritually fulfilled. Then, there are those who are forced to think practically, and who, for one reason or another, take what opportunities they are afforded based on skill and education—aka the people who don’t have the privileges of the former groups, people who work because work pays the bills.

Existentialism aside, in some ways, it’s difficult to determine who really is better off. Creative labor is arguably more undervalued than ever. In order to see these conditions in action, one need look no further than “gig” websites, like Fiverr and Upwork. These platforms connect freelance artists (writers, graphic designers, animators, and more) with potential clients. The model requires the freelancers to sell themselves to the potential client with a detailed proposal and bid. Unsurprisingly, the proposal is irrelevant to whoever the lowest bidder is.

In mid-2017, Fiverr came under fire for a series of advertisements showing disheveled freelance workers who “eat coffee” and run on minimal sleep. The company’s attempt to romanticize the paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle of the average creative was met with vitriol from those the ads were intended to target. But unfortunately, this cycle seems it will continue to perpetuate itself, so long as youth are encouraged to pursue their “dreams” in a life-sustaining format. The rise of for-profit colleges has certainly bolstered this mentality, with money-making schools like Full Sail University eagerly selling the idea that a career in the visual arts is as easy as wanting it (and paying $20,000 a year to want it).

But if one does not successfully transform their artistic desires into a sustainable form of work? They can either prepare to publicly rank their passion as a mere hobby, or face the label of failure in the eyes of capitalist society. It’s sexy and romantic to be a struggling musician in one’s twenties. But when the gray hairs begin to sprout and living gig to gig gets tiresome, it may be time to rethink what the purpose of work is in the first place.

A solution

Trade labor is an opportunity for millennials to put the anti-capitalist notion of separating work from self into practice. It allows for the economic freedom, physical protections, and a genuine sense of community that many of today’s young workers have yet to experience. Above all, skilled labor is a path to stability—something that those balancing student loans, credit card bills, rent, and the rest of life struggle to maintain.


By participating in a skilled trade, young people have the tools to fight back against a societal structure that encourages them to believe they need to wear themselves thin in order to be worthy of basic human necessities. To be a human is not to be a worker—a simplistic fact, but one that is frequently lost in the flurry of attempting to make money and identify with others in this strange state of society. To engage in the world of trade labor is to create a formal separation between one and their work, and to be protected while doing it.

Despite the bulk of our misconceptions about skilled labor, it is a world filled with pride, tradition, and possibility. For some, it is a means of earning a paycheck so winter can be spent surfing in Antigua. For others, it is a time-honored field whose structure can be traced back to the guilds of the middle ages. Many continually tout the physical and mental benefits of “working with your hands” as opposed to sitting at a desk and watching the clock tick by as you prepare for another round of Solitaire. From a generational perspective, inspiring one’s children to follow in a family tradition of skilled labor is inspiring them to a life of stability and pride in their work–or do you really think your future granddaughter’s position as a coder for a juice cleanse website will exist in 50 years?

Even millennials who want to keep pursuing their artistic dreams should at least look to skilled labor for strategies on how to unionize. While certain gig sectors are already making the slow move toward unionizing—such as graduate students, writers and editors, and Uber drivers—precedent for workers’ rights need to be set and set fast.  

While nothing is as simplistic as becoming a carpenter and saving the world or asking your co-workers to sign a petition and suddenly receive six months of paternal leave, the real problem lies in people thinking these things are far too complicated. While it may feel fine to remain complacent in the present economic structure, there is potential to feel far more incredible things by testing its limits.

The Daily Dot