From the time most Americans enter middle school, they are fed the same dogmatic spiel about education. “ You will never get anywhere without college… Higher education will ensure your financial stability and give you a chance at a good retirement.” I heard this endlessly throughout middle school and into high school from my teachers, father, and others. Given an unusual maternal family perspective on education, I was not afforded the opportunity to pursue college (this is a topic for another discussion) and surprisingly it's one of the few things in my childhood I am thankful for.
Now before we go any further this is not a “fuck school“ education bashing hit piece. Education is incredibly important. Without it we wouldn't have the medical, technological and agricultural advancements since the industrial revolution. The last thing I want is a Surgeon performing a surgery without the proper education or a structural engineer designing the next beautiful skyscraper in Seattle by you know… just winging it.
With everything a formal education has given Americans, it's also become a detriment to American society, shackling millions to a debt that will take many decades to pay back if at all. It’s becoming more common nowadays to hear from someone in their 40s that they have just finished paying back their student loans. The average college student graduates with about $30,000 in college loan debt that they are expected to pay back over their lifetime. A debt they can’t file bankruptcy on and in many cases can affect their creditworthiness to borrow money for major purchases (home loans, car loans, etc.). Many who pursue more than just a BA can expect this debt to climb much higher. As of 2018, there is currently over 1.5 trillion dollars in unpaid college loan debt. To compare, that’s about 5% of our national debt. It’s also nearly triple that of our annual defense budget for the nation. We have become a country of indebtedness because of our education system.
The problem isn’t with education itself. The problem is with it being crammed down our throats to pursue a 4 year degree at all costs, ignoring the fact that for many this means they are pursuing an education simply, to pursue an education with no real goal in site. In all honesty, how many people really know what they want to do for the rest of their life (or at least a good chunk of it) at 18 years old? If I were a gambling man I wouldn’t put great odds on it.
I graduated high school in 2005, never took my SAT’s and had no plans to pursue college. This wasn't by choice at the time but what I was required to do. My first job was working at a hardware store in Ojai, CA, the small town I grew up in. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my professional life. It took me about two weeks before I knew it wasn't stocking shelves at a hardware store. Being a millennial I knew where to turn, the internet. I had no idea what I was passionate about or good at. Zero self-awareness. I found online that one of the highest-paid trades at the time was electricians. I knew that no matter what, I needed a job I could fall back on until I could figure out what to pursue long term. Electrician it was. Deciding to pursue a trade was one of the smartest decisions I made at the time. I took a job as an electrician’s apprentice and poured my time into understanding electrical theory. I loved it. By the time I was 22 I had the hours to get my Journeyman’s card and was running job sites for a small electrical firm in central California.
This all changed in 2009, in the midst of the “great recession”, construction jobs dried up. I was on the hunt again for a job knowing I didn't want to stay in construction. My electrical experience proved invaluable. I was quickly able to land a position with an Oil and Gas company because of my electrical background and was hired as an Operator Trainee. Within 6 months I was a #2 Operator for an onshore production facility in Central California. Again, I loved it, I was working a week on week off schedule affording me the freedom to travel. I spent much of this time traveling the world. At 5 years out of high school, I was pulling in close to $75K per year. This is more than most get after they join the workforce straight out of college. I poured my time into learning everything I could about oil and gas production. Within 4 years I was the relief supervisor for the facility I worked at.
I knew this wasn’t the industry I wanted to stay in and began looking for my next big move. Back to the world wide web. I knew from research there was a growing industry in Safety so I approached the company I was working for to see if they could assist me. I was able to get the schooling on their dime to further my career pursuits and they promoted me to a safety advisory position. At 6 years out of high school, I was a Safety Advisor for an oil and gas company that covered onshore and offshore operations overseeing 300+ employees in California and Texas. I officially entered the corporate world. Through all this, my prior experience in construction and general industry work in oil and gas gave me leverage to make the next move. At this point, it was a matter of time before I was going to jump industries within the safety field.
That time came 2 years ago. I got a call from a Fortune 500 maritime company offering me a management position to oversee the occupational safety operations for 42 of their ships that operate worldwide. This was a position they advertised for requiring a Masters's Degree in safety. They saw that through my experience, work history, and proven track record, that I possessed the skills they were looking for even though I didn't possess formal education. I jumped at the opportunity. My career is affording me a six-figure salary, trips around the world visiting ships in Europe, the Caribbean, Alaska, the Mediterranean, and the Far East. If you had asked me at 18 years old what my career would be, I would have never guessed this.
Experience vs Education
The one thing I have learned throughout my career is there is more to making it than just formal education. From personal experience, I have seen countless individuals pursue an education with an expectation of a career waiting for them when they get that diploma only to realize the sad truth that they may be stocking shelves at the hardware store. You may look at my story above and think it's an extreme example of someone working outside the system to pursue a career they want and you may be right. There is no one-size-fits-all solutions to pursuing a career in 2019. The key is to understanding that in many cases, a college degree is only a piece of the puzzle and that puzzle is far more convoluted than you may think. In some cases, college and the associated crippling debt may get in the way of ultimately what you are trying to pursue. In some cases, it’s the only way to get there.
The ultimate question of “Is education worth the investment?” relies on your career pursuits. Do you plan to be a Doctor, Engineer, Wall Street Banker, or do have a free ride with education expenses? If so then by all means pursue that BA. If you are looking to go into the Arts or the Entrepreneurial route or even some technological career choices, history shows many who succeeded either dropped out of college or never went.
Take for instance the idea of pursuing a career with Google. Say you are interested in becoming a software engineer. You could invest the time and money to get the BA and have a pretty good shot at the entry-level programming job Google has open. Google will pay you their entry-level programmers salary of around $50k and expect you to move to be near the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA. You will expect to pay through the nose in the rental market to live there, possibly need to house share, and make sure to pay your student loans as you begin your burgeoning career.
You could approach getting that job with Google in a different way. You could pursue programming on your own. Learn HTML, PYTHON, JAVA, and whatever other programming languages you think you may need. Build your own apps and try to land a job with a smaller tech firm near where you live getting paid far less than you want. Maybe you can get them to foot the bill on some programming courses. “Live in the dirt” as Gary Vaynerchuck would say and learn all you can. In 4 to 5 years you may have the knowledge and work experience to get that same programming job with Google without the college debt. It all depends on how hard you want to work for it.
Some of the biggest companies are dropping their requirements of a college degree seeing that many nowadays have the ability to succeed without them through work experience. The truth is nothing substitutes experience and a proven track record. The real question shouldn’t be “can you make it without college?” but rather “how hard are you going to work to get the things you want in career?”. College or no college, it doesn't matter.
When you are making any long term career decisions the following attributes can be just as important as formal education:
- Self Awareness: Take the time to understand you. Be honest with yourself about what you are good at and what you need to work on. In some cases that is accepting the fact that you are not good at something. I can’t sing. No matter how hard I try I will never be the next Justin Timberlake. I can play guitar though, maybe I could be his guitar player. The sooner you accept your faults and strengths the sooner you know where to focus your efforts in your professional life.
- Humility: NEVER expect anything (high salary, prestige, etc) when you enter a career field. No matter how smart you think you may be, there is always something to learn from others. The friends and connections you make within a business can end up being the difference in your success. It's not always about what you know but who you know. Treat the Janitor the same as the CEO and always be open to learning new things. Be a leader, not a dick.
- Initiative: If you want to succeed there is one thing to remember, no one else is running your career for you. You won’t get anywhere unless you get off your ass and do it yourself. No one is going to be sympathetic to your aspirations and dreams. Do you want them? You go get them, end of.
- Continue to learn: Just because you are no longer in school doesn't mean you stop learning. There are countless outlets to learn through (Podcasts, Blogs, Apple University Courses, Books, Youtube etc.). Depending on what size of a company you may work for, they may offer continued education funding. Take full advantage of it. No matter what you pursue, take the time to learn something new within that field on a daily basis.
- LinkedIn: LinkedIn is a modern resume. Ensure you have an up to date profile and fill out every detail you have regarding your professional life. Any bit of schooling, training courses, references, etc. are invaluable in showing what you are qualified to do a job in the eyes of a recruiter of business head. You won’t get far in 2019 without a LinkedIn profile.