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Is a trades and manufacturing career less intellectually challenging than the traditional college route?

Jun 17, 2020
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The intellectual challenge of any career is principally a function of the intellectual drive and curiosity of the person, rather than the path. If a person is bored with most topics, rarely asks questions, and is passive when confronting new challenges, then neither a trades and manufacturing career nor the immediate pursuit of a college degree is likely to be an intellectually stimulating and rewarding path. If the opposite is the case, then the student will find either path to be one on which his or her brain can be fully engaged and challenged.

Consider, first of all, some high-level thoughts on the trades and manufacturing career path:

  • A trades and manufacturing career offers the potential for cognitive, problem-solving abilities to be deployed because of the need to find a right answer for situations where abstract, conceptual answers simply won’t work. When building, machining, or repairing something, the outcome is that it either works or it doesn’t. The end game is black and white; there really is no gray.
  • Matthew Crawford, a Ph.D. in political philosophy AND a motorcycle mechanic, believes that it regularly takes greater cognitive firepower to figure out what ails a motor or engine and then fix it than it does to perform many white-collar jobs for which a four-year degree (at minimum) is required.
  • Take a look at the complexity of the electrical wiring and plumbing systems in your home; consider the incredibly tight tolerances and configurations of the electronic devices you depend on, the automobiles you drive, and the medical components keeping people alive; consider the challenge of solving any number of mechanical or systems problems you might encounter during the day and imagine solving them where there’s no information available other than, “it doesn’t work”; please also consider the electrical, plumbing, and structural framing systems supporting the office in which you might work or the sports stadiums you visit…and then try to build a case that the intellectual horsepower behind all of that is less than that which underlies so much of the office tedium which passes as “knowledge work”. It’s an incredibly tough case to make.

Next, consider the career-path dynamic for the highly-capable worker within the trades and manufacturing environment where very real problems exist. The problem-solver, the person who can work through issues that others cannot successfully address, will be pulled into situations of greater and greater complexity and into positions of higher and higher responsibility. Why? Because problems need to be solved. Things need to be built or machined correctly. No amount of political posturing or office niceties will paper over an inability in a trades and manufacturing environment to do something correctly. As a result, intellectual challenges will continue to surface for those who are capable of solving those immediately in front of them.

Consider also the career advancement opportunities for the skilled employee in trades and manufacturing. We have listed just a select few for those individuals who wish to build on their technical capability and move up the organization chart.

  • Project management (construction, electrical)
  • CNC manufacturing and machine technology
  • Robotics and mechatronics
  • Quality control
  • Master tradesperson
  • Facilities operation and management
  • Production manager
  • Small business owner/entrepreneur

Finally, a number of leading companies, including Google, Hilton, Starbucks, Costco, E & Y, Apple, and Bank of America, have recently dropped the college-degree requirement for some of their top jobs. While these decisions do not specifically endorse the trades and manufacturing route, they certainly do call into question the necessity and intellectual value of the increasingly expensive college degree.

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