“STEM”, Skilled Trades, and Hype

Go to most any website, especially the likes of Reddit, and ask what are the best and most lucrative fields for a starry-eyed youth just starting out to get into. Chances are they’ll recommend “skilled trades”: “my father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate is a plumber and he makes $100,000 a year easy!” is the vibe I get. Those who are more behind-the-times, less trendy, or still convinced of the value of college and higher education in general will bleat “get into a STEM field!”.

What is “STEM”?

Well, there are certain truths about skilled trades and “STEM” that are usually left out, which I intend to touch upon here. Let’s start with “STEM”. It’s an acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Heady stuff, sure, but is advising a young person to get into any field on that list a good idea? Science is brainy, heady stuff, and has accomplished great things for our civilization, but the work of science as a job, especially if you lack the PhD credential usually required to become an actual scientist, is very tedious, menial, and monotonous. Worse than that, science jobs are infamously low-paying! Sure, if you have a passion for it science isn’t the worst field you could get into, but is it a good choice for someone who just wants to get a lucrative career? Certainly not.

“Technology” is somewhat nebulous judging by my perusal of Google results for it in the STEM context, but I assume that “technology” encompasses the likes of software developers: high-tech occupations that don’t really fit into the other categories. The fields in the T part of STEM are indeed high-paying as a rule; software development is one of the vanishingly few occupations that pay over $100,000 a year at the median and that has no shortage of job openings. Even the likes of a user experience designer earn $80,000 at the median. Better yet, unlike in the science fields no more than a bachelor’s degree is usually demanded at any level in the field, and often not even that much (if you have a good portfolio and shine in a technical interview).

The catch with technology is that there are actually a relatively small number of people who are capable of doing that sort of work; it’s as tedious as it is brainy, demanding you enjoy solving maddening puzzles all day. In software development, coding, and programming it’s very common for people who work in the field to do it as a hobby, often from childhood. If that doesn’t describe you then you’ll have a hard time reaching the upper echelon of the field; even the lower echelon, though, still pays reasonably well as far as most jobs go, so for those with the right mind and temperament for it I would heartily recommend the technology field as a career.

Engineering is a quite distinct field from “technology”, but is broadly comparable: brainy, heady stuff that not just anybody can do, but has plenty of job openings and a straightforward path to get into it (just get a bachelor’s of engineering degree!). As a rule it pays somewhat worse than the tech industry does, with the average engineer only earning $70,000 a year, but if you lack a good head for programming yet can do the work for engineering it may well be the highest-paying field you can get into. Indeed, of all the professional fields you can pursue after getting a bachelor’s degree engineering is one of the highest-paying and most reliable.

Mathematics is perhaps the brainiest option in the whole group, but in practice it’s rather nebulous, as very few people who get mathematics degrees become professional mathematicians. Rather, they apply their mathematical skills to a wide variety of occupations, most of which tend to be high-paying. The ultimate example would have to be “quants”, experts in pure mathematics armed with master’s degrees and doctorates in the field who then go on to work for investment banks, hedge funds, and the like, easily earning ten times what the average engineer does. Such openings are rare, but it does underline the sort of doors that open for you with a mathematics education.

The Truth about “STEM”

So what we have here is two fields that have relatively straightforward high-paying paths, i.e. technology and engineering, plus one field that pays very poorly and is hard to break into, i.e. science, plus another field that is high-paying but has a rather nebulous career path. So why were these disparate occupations all lumped together under “STEM” as if they’re all the same thing?

Well, what everyone seems to have forgotten is “STEM” was not originally coined to reflect a group of high-paying careers. Rather, it was coined to denote the fields important at a geopolitical level to keep the United States competitive against Asian countries like China and India. Notice these are the exact fields Asian people tend to excel in compared to their Western counterparts. It doesn’t help that these are also the fields the Soviet Union punched above its weight in back in the 20th century; the “Sputnik crisis” inspired the first large-scale effort in the US to improve education in the STEM fields.

The STEM discourse’s transformation into what it is today, career advice rather than a geopolitical concept, was driven by the ever-inflating cost of a college degree in the United States. Over the decades it’s become more and more obvious that college just doesn’t pay off like it once did; graduates earn the same $50,000 a year that they used to, but now they have to pay like $40,000 to get a degree rather than the $10,000 they did back in the old days, so the return on investment has been shrinking. Indeed, by some measures it’s already reached zero!

College Backlash and its Horrors

When people started to question this, the reply the masses bleated out was “Oh, that’s because you didn’t pick the right major! You should have picked out a ‘useful degree’ like ‘STEM’!”. Some people have always detested the humanities fields, but the tipping point was the 2008 recession, which left massive numbers of college graduates severely underemployed. This rhetoric became especially popular among conservatives and the right-wing in general after 2008, for a variety of reasons. Especially cringey is how people love to contrast “STEM” with “liberal arts”, when science and mathematics, i.e. half of “STEM”, are both liberal arts!

More recently, though, starting roughly in the mid 2010s, there’s been a further degradation of educational ambition, as conservatives, right-wingers, and assorted other groups who love to blame the individual’s choices for systemic problems in society, have embraced a new party line: “forget college!” they bleat these days, “go into teh skilled trades!”.

The Truth about Skilled Trades

There’s a much-hyped shortage of skilled tradesman, and sure, they’re good jobs for the right person who doesn’t have the opportunity to do any better, but the fact is skilled trades as a rule don’t pay that much. The median salary of a plumber, for example, is only $60,000; electricians make comparable pay. The trades are also notoriously hard to break into, and this hasn’t changed much in recent years despite the endless hype about a labor shortage. Many a union de facto reserve apprenticeships for the sons of current members; if you lack connections your options will be much more limited than you might think.

Trades tend to be hard manual labor, and there are many cautionary tales online about how they “destroy your body”, but this aspect is overhyped; sitting at a desk all day isn’t any good for your body either. It’s also worth noting most of the difference is accounted for by the fact tradesmen on average don’t take care of their bodies nearly as well as white-collar workers do.

Of greater concern is how the training of a tradesmen leaves your options much more limited than if you earned a college degree. A generic bachelor’s degree (like one in, *gasp*, the humanities) opens up most white-collar corporate jobs to you, whereas a technical certificate leaves you qualified only for that one narrow specialized field.

Cost: Trade School versus College

That might not be too bad if skilled-trade credentials were far cheaper than a college degree, but they’re not really that much cheaper. This article from The Simple Dollar, which is a pro-trade-school source, cites a total average cost of $33,000 for a trade school education. Yikes. I see similar numbers cited elsewhere. Sure, that article claims a bachelor’s degree costs $127,000, so given those assumptions trade school is indeed far cheaper. But median in-state college tuition in the United States is $9,000 a year, so if all you want is a standard-issue degree from a standard-issue college the cost is more like $36,000 total. Still very overpriced for what you get. Just for the sake of comparison, $3600 is the median tuition at public two-year colleges, which generally offer many “vocational” programs. Taking that as our baseline, a diploma from there comes to $7000 total.

Still $30,000 cheaper, which is significant. But on the other hand, the very cheapest bachelor’s degrees come to about the same! If you gain college credits by examination from e.g. CLEP, DSST, and the like, then transfer those credits into one of the “Big Three” schools that take an unlimited number of transfer credits, i.e. Thomas Edison State University, Charter Oak State College, or Excelsior College, then your total cost comes to $10,000 or somewhat less, i.e. high four figures, comparable to these vaunted “community colleges” or “trade schools”! These aren’t diploma mills; they are fully accredited universities, and a bachelor’s degree from one of those places will open as many doors for you as one from a no-name state college (not nearly as many doors as, say, Harvard, but I doubt many people choosing between a degree and a skilled trade have a prayer of getting into the likes of Harvard, so…), and certainly far more doors than a technical certificate from a community college or trade school.

WGU: America’s most affordable University Degree

Another alternate is getting a bachelor’s degree from Western Governors University, a fully-accredited exclusively-online school; their tuition comes to $3600 every six months. If you take four years to get a degree that’s $28,800 total. Yikes. But WGU practices “competency-based education”, which means you can go at your own pace. If you can complete all your coursework in one six-month term all you pay is the $3600, making it the cheapest possible way to get a fully-accredited bachelor’s degree in the United States today. Wow.

Acceleration to this extent is rare, but the median WGU student completes a bachelor’s degree in 2.5 years, which comes to $18,000. That’s competitive with the likes of community colleges and trade schools. It gets even better; the median WGU student is studying while also working a full-time job, so if, like traditional college students, you have no other responsibilities you could no doubt complete a program substantially faster. 1-2 years should be realistic. If you can accelerate to this extent I’d recommend WGU; if not, then I’d recommend the “Big Three” exam schools instead, as you don’t pay extra to them if you take longer (the vast majority of the cost in their case is the exam fees).

The upshot is that if you want a bachelor’s degree but balk at the cost, you need not resort to a vocational program; there are ways to get your degree for the same cost or less (!) than what it would take to enter a skilled trade.

Skilled Trades: not for Everyone

Given that, what exactly is the value proposition of the skilled trades? Basically zero, at least as far as being a higher-education alternative for a standard-issue college student or a standard-issue non-college-educated worker wanting to upgrade their skills and résumé is concerned. Now, if there’s a skilled trade you happen to really like and if you show some talent in it, then sure, it’s a great choice for you; you’ll probably find a career you enjoy and make good money in it. But that’s no different from the way it’s always been.

There is certainly a population raised by professional-class parents who love working with their hands but assume they must go to college and never consider the skilled trades because they’ve imbibed the zeitgeist that it’s beneath them, but despite the hype it just doesn’t account for that many people. The blue-collar trade talent locked away in the upper-middle class is likely significant, but the amount of it in my view has been greatly exaggerated.


So, long story short, the skilled trades just aren’t a compelling alternative to earning a degree for most people. “Picking the right major”, at least in the “don’t pick the liberal arts!” sense, is also extremely overhyped as a determinant of career outcomes. Sure, the STEM fields harbor many high-paying career choices, but technical majors on average don’t even earn any more on average than liberal-arts majors do. For every petroleum engineering major making six figures there’s a social work major making little over minimum wage.

The vast majority of jobs that demand a bachelor’s degree just demand any bachelor’s degree regardless of major. If you have no particular direction in life but want to get a credential that’ll make earning a good living easier, you really can’t go wrong with a generic liberal arts or business bachelor’s degree.

Believe it or not, the traditional advice still holds true, were it not for the extremely high prevailing cost of getting a bachelor’s degree. But since there are far cheaper ways of getting one than the prevailing cost, you need not concern yourself about that. Tickets to the middle class are still being sold, you just have to buy them at the side door instead of the front door. 😉

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