Skills Not Schools: Lessons from the Renaissance

Renaissance education is the foundation of the modern university system. It was based on the concept of the Universal Man or Uomo Universale.  As mankind was the ultimate creation of God, it was man’s job to reach his maximum by continual self-improvement. This idea led to the notion that men should try to embrace all knowledge and develop their own capacities as fully as possible. To be a Renaissance man, one must develop his knowledge base as well as his craft.  Perhaps no person embodies this concept more than Renaissance artist, scientist, and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. In Leonardo, a duality of the mind and hands is found. Out of this ideal, the university and the journeyman education are born.   Yet, rather than striving for this unity of the mind and the body, the education system has juxtaposed these two disciplines in competition with one another.

The modern workforce demands a college degree.  Visit any job recruitment board and you will find it a prerequisite for getting in front of a hiring manager. From the time that students are in secondary school, it is hammered into them that they are either on a college preparatory curriculum track or a vocational curriculum track.  And there is a stigma associated with the vocational track as lesser-than, and for those who can’t muster the academic rigor of the college preparatory curriculum. Real or perceived, this association places a disproportionate amount of value on the college degree. This imbalance of value serves to both distort the job market, as well as to lessen the value of the college degree itself.  As stated in another piece on meritocracy, it is rarity that gives something value. When college degrees become commonplace, they impede one’s ability to differentiate from all other job applicants.

Before the creation of the Stafford Education Loan program in 1965, fewer than ten percent of U.S. adults had a bachelors-level or higher college degree.  As of 2019, that number eclipsed thirty-five percent.  When you factor in only those who comprise the labor base, that number likely rises even more as the lesser-educated labor base retires or exits the workforce.  While one might view this as a net positive for society, it does come with some very real drawbacks.  First, as mentioned prior it devalues the ability of the degree to provide a competitive edge in job placement. Second, guaranteed government funds have served as a cash cow to the public university system that creates perverse incentives for expansion and recruitment.  As such, the cost of a higher education degree has sharply outpaced inflation.

In 1960 a student could work part-time on a $1 per hour minimum wage and afford to pay tuition, room, and board at my alma mater, the University of Georgia.  That same student could work the same part-time minimum-wage job, and still come up more than $10,000 short of their financial obligations today.  The student’s only option is to either take on loans or get a scholarship to make up the difference.  And this debt trend in pursuit of higher education is pervasive nationwide. Student loan debt eclipsed personal credit card debt in 2019, and on average people with student loan debt have seventy-five percent less net worth than those without it. For the university’s part, they have utilized these funds to invest more than a billion dollars in expansion over the last decade.

Contrasted with this higher-debt college degree is the vocational or trade diploma. Just as the college-educated labor base grows in the wake of a retiring workforce, the vocational and skilled labor base shrinks as students are discouraged from entry and fail to replace an outgoing workforce.  On my career training path, I studied for a year at the local technical college that hosted dual enrollment courses with the local university.  One such course was an entry-level economics course that was simulcast from the university to the technical school.  Throughout the course, the instructor alluded to the emerging U.S. economy as a white-collar economy and noted that the labor base would need to retrain for desk jobs.  This was quite the statement to broadcast into a technical college.  And further down my career path in graduate school ten years later, it was commonplace for the program director to allude to an enormous higher-education bubble and discourage the university degree in lieu of skilled labor.

Skilled vocational labor has seen a limited but renewed focus by proponents such as "Dirty Jobs" television personality Mike Rowe and his organization, Mike Rowe Works.  Shining a spotlight on the value of vocational trades and their low-debt, low-barrier-to-entry is a necessary counterbalance to the pervasive belief that a college degree should be a requisite for employment. It’s not just the low barrier-to-entry that makes skilled labor an attractive pursuit, the high demand for this labor creates extremely competitive wages. The entry-level hourly rate for a pipefitter is around $22 per hour, which is $5 per hour more than the equivalent entry-level teacher’s salary with a four-year degree. With twenty years of experience, the average teacher’s salary rises to just over $59,000 per year, while the average seasoned pipefitter eclipses $78,000 per year.  While there are trade-offs not mentioned here, the average teacher will enter the workforce with significantly more student debt.

Tangible benefits like wages and demand are not the only attractive qualities of skilled labor. There are very real and intangible benefits of it, such as the value of personal production.  Renaissance philosophers believed that men were made in the mold of a creative God; we create because God Created. There is a very real fulfillment that arises from the act of creation, and it is no coincidence that the Bible begins with Creation. Observe craftsmen upon completion of a project as they scrutinize their work and you will witness the picture of a Creative God, who on the seventh day marveled in fulfillment of His Creation.  Vocational training is neither lesser than a college degree nor contrary to a fulfilling career. There is a valid argument to be made that skilled labor is the perfection of a whole person, and our Renaissance predecessors believed that.

“Everything that is responsible for creating something out of nothing is a kind of poetry; and so all the creations of every craft and profession are themselves a kind of poetry, and everyone who practices a craft is a poet.” -- Plato

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Image: Laurentius de Voltolina

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